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How Should a Millennial Be?

Sally Rooney, Dublin, 2016
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Sally Rooney, Dublin, January 2016; photograph by Eamonn Doyle

“The great millennial novelist”—the mantle has been thrust, by Boomers and Gen Xers alike, upon the Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose two carefully observed and gentle comedies of manners both appeared before her twenty-eighth birthday. With this mantle have come prizes and money. Nearly every review has mentioned at least the prizes.

Cozy in scope and romantic in spirit, the novels are mild and tender portraits of Irish college students in the recent present. In the first, Conversations with Friends, Frances and Bobbi, two best friends in their early twenties who used to date and occasionally sleep together, fall for Nick and Melissa, a couple in their thirties. Frances begins an affair with Nick, threatening her relationship with Bobbi and allowing her to find some independence.

Normal People halves the action. Instead of a romantic quadrangle with two couples, we have “the chemistry between two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone”: Marianne and Connell, whose courtship, chronicled from high school through college, is fraught because Marianne’s family is rich and Connell’s poor. When the book opens, his mother is cleaning her mother’s home. Connell is too embarrassed to bring nerdy Marianne to a dance, and the couple split, but when they end up at the same university they reunite, dating on and off while struggling to figure out who they are.

Both books take place around Trinity College, Dublin, and are populated by witty and sensitive students who e-mail a lot. Both books feature scenes with cynical, distinguished male novelists and in both, one member of the loving pair is plucked for literary success by a kindly, more established person who submits their short story to magazines. The protagonists of both books are young women who have violent fathers and cut or hurt themselves.

Plenty of writers have made their mark by focusing on a small range of characters or locations. Who would begrudge William Faulkner Yoknapatawpha County or Philip Roth Philip Roth? Still, when several weeks after reading these books details from one began to blend into the other, I figured it might be worth looking at what unites them rather than what sets them apart.

Rooney is primarily concerned with social relations: How do people have power over one another? (“Power” is a word she uses often.) Her novels are attuned to the small differences of class and its millennial sister, privilege: the girl who wears thrift store clothes because it’s cool versus the girl who wears thrift store clothes because that’s all she can afford. “I struggled to make conversation with people of my own parents’ background, afraid that my vowels sounded pretentious or my large flea-market coat made me look rich,” thinks Frances in Conversations with Friends. “Philip [a friend] also suffered from looking rich, though in his case because he really was.” Her protagonists often analyze their own status—what it means to wear a necklace from the cheap British catalog store Argos or to drink milk directly from the bottle. Who is the real writer? Who is “normal” and who is “impressive”?

As a portrait of young people today, Rooney’s books are remarkably precise—she captures meticulously the way a generation raised on social data thinks and talks. Rooney’s characters love to announce where they fall on the matrix of taste and social awareness. They read Patricia Lockwood and watch Greta Gerwig movies; they read Twitter for jokes. Decisions are made according to typologies. There’s built-in social meaning for any interest or opinion. “No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy,” says Nick, and I was reminded of friends swiping left on Tinder, rejecting dates because their favorite movies signaled unquestionable incompatibility.

Classic coming-of-age: no one is more judgmental than someone who has no idea what she wants. But Rooney’s characters (who, I might mention, don’t do drugs and drink reasonably except when they are taking a dark turn) aren’t just concerned about seeming cool to one another. The people who matter are the adults. There’s no counterculture here, no sense that the kids are making their own rules. They are all good students.

It is the older people who have the real power in this world: the power to give scholarships, to jumpstart a young person’s career, to make the girl who wants to be a writer a writer. Frances, in Conversations with Friends, dashes off a short story in a day and is immediately published in a literary magazine thanks to a wealthy woman named Valerie whom she meets in the south of France. Talent is indistinguishable from institutional support. At the end of Normal People, Connell, who has been feeling sheepish about his stories, finally finds sure proof of his skill: he gets into an MFA program in New York.

Characters in Rooney’s novels seek reassurance from their elders, who are happy to give it. “It’s okay, it doesn’t make you a bad person,” Nick tells Frances after they decide to end their affair. Even Melissa, the deceived wife, begins her e-mail to Frances, “I’m not angry at you.” Frances wonders how much control she, as a twenty-one-year-old, has over the relationship she has initiated with Nick, who is thirty-two. At one point, Frances even compares her lover and his wife to old mum and dad:

I was going through a second upbringing: learning a new set of assumptions, and feigning a greater level of understanding than I really possessed. By this logic Nick and Melissa were like my parents bringing me into the world, probably hating and loving me even more than my original parents did.

Structural differences, power struggles: this is Marxism, right? The characters in Rooney’s books are leftists, but the politics are mostly gestural. “I’m gay, and Frances is a communist” is how Bobbi introduces her friend at the beginning of Conversations with Friends. Melissa notes that Nick has been cured of his depression when he begins to send her “interesting articles about leftists in Greece.”

Normal People’s Connell imagines the political opportunities of attending Trinity College Dublin over the local university: “He would start going to dinner parties and having conversations about the Greek bailout. He could fuck some weird-looking girls who turn out to be bisexual. I’ve read The Golden Notebook, he could tell them.” This isn’t satire. Rooney sometimes teases her characters, but her writing has little irony or distance. She keeps her canvas small and her gaze sincere. The books are cruelty-free.

Her characters talk about politics all the time, testing out new ideas like outfits for a get-together. The debates are friendly and mellow, sheltered by the understanding that everyone at the table agrees with the fuzzy leftist principles in play. The analysis is therefore softly put and somewhat limited, like when Bobbi thinks that depression is caused by late capitalism or the friends chat online about the economics of love:

Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon

Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system

Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness

Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality…

me: capitalism harnesses “love” for profit

me: love is the discursive practice and unpaid labor is the effect

me: but I mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such

Bobbi: that’s vapid frances

Maybe we shouldn’t expect too much from them. They’re college students. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to treat politics as an extension of social rules rather than a way of understanding the world. But it’s not clear if it’s a novelistic choice to keep the politics to the realm of dinner party conversation. Why don’t Rooney’s characters get angry, or do more than mill around at a Gaza protest with friends? The system is rigged against them, and against all millennials—the most credentialed generation in history and yet unlikely to ever earn anything close to their parents’ incomes, as millennial sociologist Malcolm Harris has amply documented in his book Kids These Days (2017). Rooney herself has spoken and written about politics in essays for the London Review of Books. Her characters lack this knowledge or understanding, nor do the books offer much by way of diagnosis.

Of course characters in novels are not sociologists writing essays. Yet the reader wonders why, for all their talk of capitalism, they don’t rebel against the situation they’ve identified, or find a politics they might use to change it. They seem to accept the rankings and rules of the world around them. When Bobbi, whom Frances has always considered the cooler of the pair, announces that she aspires to be nothing more than a university secretary, she seems to take her place in the class structure without question:

Why would I write a book? she said. I’m not a writer.

What are you going to do? After we graduate.

I don’t know. Work in a university if I can….

I thought you were planning to bring down global capitalism, I said.

Well, not on my own. Someone has to do the small jobs.

I just don’t see you as a small-jobs person.

That’s what I am, she said…. I’m just a normal person…. I’m not trying to upset you.

Rooney is an Irish novelist but her prose has no particular regional sound. Her writing is flat and lean, with the occasional dashed-off simile. (“The mist was gray, like a veil”; “I felt warm and sleepy, like a child”; “The inside of my body was hot like oil.”) The characters’ e-mails and texts are as much part of the conversation as anything spoken, and when they think, they sound like the Internet too. Moods are “intense,” faces are “expressive” or “inexpressive.” Her prose moves adverbially. Rooney does away with quotation marks, which has the double effect of speeding the book up and blurring the voice of the narrator with everyone else’s.

Drawing of two figures blowing in the wind

Almost all the characters sound similar, except for Frances’s mother, who says things like “good woman” when she means “good job.” The voice of Rooney’s characters is the international anxious English of the overeducated and underemployed. When Melissa discovers the affair, her long e-mail to Frances sounds like something Frances might have written: “I’ve cried copiously, not only in fits & starts but also for sustained periods of over an hour each.” (Reading Rooney, I longed for the elegant sentences of Andrew Martin’s Early Work, which treats similar material with grace and warmth.)

The loose rumblings of the narration often reminded me of a long e-mail from one friend to another, or a Tumblr post, typed in haste after a long night out. Marianne sees her face “like a piece of technology, and her two eyes are cursors blinking. It expresses everything all at once, which is the same as expressing nothing.” “Anyway, it looks like his grandmother’s hip is kind of messed up now and possibly broken,” thinks Connell, walking around Carricklea in Northwest Ireland. Sligo or Soho, we’re all reading the same tweets.

Maybe Rooney is just trying to get closer to reality by making her novel less like a novel, taking a cue from mumblecore movies, or projects like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, or Lena Dunham’s Girls. Her characters talk the way they do because that’s the way people talk now, and there’s no reason to imbue a narrator with style in an age that sees style as affect. But Rooney’s books lack Heti’s humor or Dunham’s goofy mishaps. Her characters are earnest to the bone. “I kind of suffer from anxiety with these things,” Connell tells Marianne when explaining his decision not to invite her to the dance. “Not that I’m making excuses, but I think I projected some anxiety onto you, if that makes sense. I don’t know.”

Rooney’s plain sentences also brought to mind the work of Tao Lin, who in novels like Taipei has so scrubbed the energy and particularities from his prose that its flatness resembles the smooth surface of a computer screen.

In the movie of [Paul’s] life, he knew, now would be the moment—like when a character quotes Coleridge in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the screen shows blurry, colorful, festive images of people outside at night—to feel that the world was “beautiful and sad,” which he felt self-consciously and briefly, exerting effort to focus instead on the conversation, which was producing its own, unmediated emotions. “Um,” he said shifting his MacBook.

Rooney’s books don’t have the anger of Lin’s novel, with its unrelenting descriptions of typing, drug-taking, and sad sex. Rooney always leaves us with a romantic ending. Connell and Marianne fall back in love while becoming the adults they were meant to be. “People can really change one another,” thinks Marianne. Frances, at the end of Conversations with Friends, stops worrying and gives in to love. “You can’t always take the analytical position,” she thinks. She, Nick, and Melissa seem to figure out how to care for one another in a new form of respectfully negotiated polyamory. It’s the only thing in these novels that comes close to a utopian ideal.

The quietness of Rooney’s writing creates a different effect, powerful in its own way—the “I could do that” thing, the false sense that if readers were to copy all their texts and e-mail threads they’d have a novel too. Her popular appeal comes in part from muting the voice on the page.

But what about the cutting? I’ve been surprised that the rapturous reviews of Rooney (“A New Kind of Adultery Novel,” The New Yorker; “A triumph,” The London Review of Books; “hailed as the first great millennial novelist,” again The New Yorker) gloss over the fact that both female protagonists hurt themselves so often and so violently that self-harm constitutes much of what could be called their character.

Frances, in Conversations with Friends, pinches her earlobe, grinds one foot on the other. When she and Nick decide to stop seeing each other midway through the novel,

I took a small nail scissors and cut a hole on the inside of my left thigh. I felt that I had to do something dramatic to stop thinking about how bad I felt, but the cut didn’t make me feel any better. Actually it bled a lot and I felt worse. I sat on the floor of my room bleeding into a rolled-up piece of tissue paper and thinking about my own death.

She stops cutting at the end, and after being diagnosed with endometriosis begins to separate her idea of her own worth from her experience of pain:

I had the sense that something in my life had ended, my image of myself as a whole or normal person maybe. I realized my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special.

In Normal People, Marianne chews the inside of her cheek until it bleeds, holds a hot cup of tea until the “pain seep[s] into her fingers, down into her flesh,” and engages in a number of sado-masochistic encounters, including a bondage tryst straight out of Fifty Shades of Grey with a Swedish photographer named Lukas who wraps her up, chokes her, and tells her that she’s “worthless” and “nothing.”

Here too, putting away thoughts of pain and violence is a sign of maturity. Toward the end of the novel, Marianne asks Connell to hurt her during sex:

Will you hit me? she says.

For a few seconds she hears nothing, not even his breath.

No, he says. I don’t think I want that. Sorry.

She says nothing.

Is that okay? he asks.

She still says nothing.

Later, they share a New Year’s kiss full of love: “She was in his power, he had chosen to redeem her, she was redeemed…. How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary.”

There’s something rather gothic about the way the BDSM is described: the characters’ appetite for pain is presented as a clear and proportional response to childhood violence. Frances’s father is an alcoholic who once threw a shoe at her, a memory that fills her with anxiety. “My dad used to hit my mum,” Marianne says. Marianne’s raging brother Alan continues the practice, calling Marianne a freak and slamming a door into her face. The violence leaves Marianne a broken person: “From a young age her life has been abnormal…deep down she knows she is a bad person, corrupted, wrong.”

Given the novel’s attention to other aspects of social power, we have surprisingly little sense of the family dynamics at work here. Rooney pictures Marianne’s mother, Denise, primarily from afar:

They saw Marianne’s mother in the supermarket. She was wearing a dark suit with a yellow silk blouse. She always looked so “put together.” Lorraine said hello politely and Denise just walked past, not speaking, eyes ahead. No one knew what she believed her grievance was.

By contrast, Connell’s mother, Lorraine, had him at seventeen with a man he’s never met. She is almost unrelentingly good, with always a kind word and “a soft face without edges.” Connell thinks of his mother, “Lorraine has values. She’s interested in Cuba, and the cause of Palestinian liberation.”

Now, it may be that cutting among people in their twenties is more common than I had known. Drunk, violent fathers are certainly no strangers to Irish literature. But I also went to college not so long ago, and I seem to remember that when someone uses violence in a novel, it often means there’s something they’re not saying. What is it?

One possibility may be that, for all the cooing of the characters, for all the rambling discussions of power and late capitalism, the only power they really have is the power to hurt themselves and others. In Normal People, Connell leaves Marianne so he can go off to New York, where success is made. “What they have now they can never have back again,” thinks Marianne. “But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy…. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once.” Near the end of Conversations with Friends, Frances sells out her friend by writing about her in the story that gets her into the literary journal: “The figure in the story was recognizably Bobbi, her parents recognizable as her parents…No one who knew us could fail to see Bobbi in the story.” She knows that Bobbi’s good material, even if using it means betraying her best friend by exposing her to strangers. It’s easier to make jokes about late capitalism than to tell someone you love that in a world where opportunities are shrinking, only one of you might have room to become who they want to be.

What will Rooney’s characters do when they leave school? Every generation has to come of age and see the world for what it is. But what’s cruelest for Rooney’s generation, which is also mine, is that we long to be loved by the world we claim to hate. Rooney, who in these two books has so carefully mimicked the speaking and thinking of a cohort raised to be disappointed, must know: parents will not save us and neither will our degrees. If we want the world we live in to look more like the one we were promised, we’ll have to speak up and make it ourselves.