What can’t be said in ‘Conversations with Friends’

By Helen Elliott

The protagonists of Sally Rooney’s debut novel privilege irony over emotion

Here are a few some nifty clues from the first page of Conversations With Friends (Faber; $27.99). Frances, the narrator who consoles herself when bad things happen by thinking how smart she is, drops this: “I was a big fan of seeing the insides of other people’s houses, especially people who were slightly famous like Melissa. Right away I decided to remember everything about her home, so I could describe it to our other friends later and Bobbi could agree.” Nice. Three of the four protagonists who make up this quartet devising themselves in Dublin are visible here. The fourth, Nick, appears a moment later. As to Dublin, it could just as easily be New York. Or Melbourne.

Bobbi and Frances have been friends since secondary school, a convent. They were lovers for a year and remain best friends, discussing and dissecting every detail of their lives. Endlessly but not without humour. Bobbi and Frances are a cooler, less knockabout version of Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana. They are still at university but they perform a spoken-word gig together in venues around Dublin. Frances, perhaps a poet, writes everything, but Bobbi is the superior performer, so onstage Frances takes her leads from her. Frances prefers being back-up to the radiant Bobbi. So she says. Melissa, a well-known journalist, comes to their gig to profile them and is so taken by their double act, both on and off the stage, that she invites them to her house – her enviable house for Frances – for a drink. And drink they do. At 3 am Bobbi and Frances end up in Melissa’s spare room. In the morning, Nick, Melissa’s actor husband who made a brief appearance in the kitchen the previous night, being sweet and kind to the dog Melissa is ignoring, has already gone, but the quartet is tuning up

Bobbi adores Melissa, who seems to reciprocate, and Frances, envious/miffed at the ease between the other two women, strikes an extreme pose of ironic detachment around them. And, for reasons she doesn’t explore, she searches for Nick-the-actor online, discovers he is quasi-famous as well as luminously handsome, and sends one of the links to Bobbi with the message “trophy husband. When “the girls”, a term they dislike although everyone calls them this, are invited to dinner at Melissa and Nick’s, Melissa starts taking intense photographs of Bobbi, and Nick and Frances start to talk. In fact, they start to fall in love.

The entire novel, 26-year-old Rooney’s first, is written in serrated, ironic conversations, either spoken or texts and instant messages prefaced by the speaker’s name. Everyday technological communication is seamlessly, brilliantly incorporated in this novel. It is important to keep in mind while reading that irony is the mechanism that delivers the speaker a clean detachment from emotion, so the truth of any feeling remains distant. In this quartet, although the yearning to lean in closer might be a truth, the four do their best to appear to lean as far away from one another as possible. Being cool is the only thing that has meaning in their smart and wordy lives. They live in language. But, strangely, they have little emotional intelligence. And being serious is unforgiveable.

The positions of Frances and Bobbi, at 21, are full of judgement and certainty. Nick and Melissa, ten years older, are more nuanced. Bobbi introduces Frances as a communist and herself as gay, Nick can’t help his good looks and his tender heart, and Melissa, who seems to have it all, remains opaque. How they all fit the scratchy pieces of personality together to make, for some time, their quartet, is the subject of this wintry tale. When Nick and Frances start their affair they betray everyone, including themselves. They both acknowledge that this can’t be “love” because Nick loves Melissa and Frances loves Bobbi. So what in another age would be understood as a truthful and profound attachment is unsayable.

Rooney’s writing suggests that she’s a fresh and original voice. But tread warily. Her generation is unmatched in narcissism. Frances’s voice, intelligent and exhilarating, is sullied by the limited emotional intelligence. She would like to become the self she theorises but who she might be is for the reader to decipher and decide.

The point of Broad City, apart from simple, silly diversion, is a comic exploration of narcissism in process. Because it is based as much in visual gags as verbal exchange it’s easily absorbed. But Rooney’s steely arsenal of smart-arsery could cause nerves to snap and fray if you are over 30. The book isn’t a sustained performance and is about a third too long. Inevitably Rooney has been compared with Salinger. Personally, and what are reviews if not personal, I could never abide him.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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