Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
I kind of wish I had read Rosenberg's novel while I was in grad school. It's exactly the kind of novel I would have wanted to write about: biopolitics, surveillance, expressions of the body, the fluidity of gender, the historiographic metafiction. Four years later and I still like books like this, so firmly rooted in academic thought and theory, politically minded and radical in its expressions of commonality and outright Marxism, though I find myself more interested in the aesthetics, the word-by-word moments, which this novel offers in plenty. Perhaps I'm just biased for the florid, euphemistic, highly metaphorical language of the 18th century, with all of its self-important capitalization. Rosenberg does an admirable imitation, though he never claims to authenticity of voice (in fact, the possibility of fabrication and sleight-of-hand are part of the plot, which allows for Rosenberg to have either intentional or unintentional anachronisms). I had a gay old time with Rosenberg's choice collective nouns. He describes a group of orphans as a "scrum of urchins," a group of policemen as a "clutch of centinels," and when a sleeping person lets loose some flatulence, it's described as "a Hoot of fart erupt[ing]" from the quilt. The plot, its nested narrative and complicated footnotes, reminded me, quite forcibly of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, including the climactic execution and subsequent reveal. Both protagonists are named Jack and both are legendary criminals. The key difference is that Rosenberg imagines Jack to be a trans man, a purposeful intervention into the traditional archive. As a radical political project, the novel works quite well, even if it's more often the opposite of "Show, Don't Tell." As a novel, it suffers from a bit too much plot. Especially the end. Still, I quite liked this. Makes me want to read some 18th century fiction, a long century of which I know little (compared to my reading in the Victorian age).
The hype for Sally Rooney is intense enough that I considered avoiding her entirely. The Guardian can't stop themselves from breathlessly profiling her and praising her every chance they get. They're teetering over the precipice of actually dubbing her the greatest novelist of the 21st century. Don't worry; such absurd proclamations are on the way, I'm sure. I read Conversations with Friends in less than 48 hours, surely a sign of a good read, I guess. Whether or not it lives up to the incredible hype is perhaps out of my limited critical range. Certainly, it's an astonishing debut, fully formed, and perfectly pitched. A blurb on the back compares the prose to Bret Easton Ellis and there are some similarities in poetics but not in subject matter. Where Ellis is only concerned with surface, Rooney is intent on exposing the internal for all its hypocrisy and self-delusion. Aesthetically, Rooney pulls off similar tricks, such as the non-paragraph-breaking non sequitur (an unrelated, but piercing sentence meant to elucidate a truth more truthful than what the narrator is narrating). These work of course, as gentle shocks, but where Rooney shines is in her careful, extremely precise modulation of the first person narrator. I haven't read a first person narrative so perfectly pitched since Kazuo Ishiguro (the undisputed master of the first person). Instead of, say, Gene Wolfe's unreliable narrator which adds narrative complexity, Rooney's unreliable narration works thematically. Much of the novel is concerned with the disjunction between Frances' self-loathing, the usual girl-raised-in-late-capitalism self-loathing and her obvious strengths (intelligence, beauty, wit, style). Characters are telling Frances about her but all she can focus on are her ugliness, her weakness, her reliance, her own self-acknowledged fakery. Here is a scene from around the halfway point, when Frances has engaged in her affair with married Nick:
I got into Nick's lap then, so we were facing one another, and he ran his hand over my hair automatically like he thought I was somebody else. He never touched me like that usually. But he was looking at me, so I guess he must have known who I was. (117)This could either be heartbreaking for Frances' lack of self esteem or it could be read as disingenuous, a ploy to provoke sympathy. Much of Frances' narration walks this extremely careful line. Where she evokes sympathy, in clear and undisputed terms, such as her struggle with endometriosis, she speaks in almost clinical terms about her pain, her desire to simply disappear, either inside the pain or from the world. It's her coldness, her sneering, which she rarely does explicitly, where Rooney's tightrope walking shines wonderfully. She hates herself but so much so she hates outwards as well, putting off her friends. But it's so de rigueur for young women raised under the constraints of late capitalism to constantly hate. It's expected, encouraged, normalized for women to feel themselves, their own bodies to be precarious. Thus it makes sense, novelistically-speaking, for Frances to endure the betrayal of her own body by a condition specific to people with uteruses raised to see their bodies as commodities. Precarity under late capitalism extends even to wombs, the novel subtly implies. Even though the characters in this novel are middle to upper class, the sting of late capitalism, the utter rot and decay of it, extends to all facets, all classes. The decomposition of everyday life is the norm under late capitalism. That Rooney accomplishes all this through precise control of first person narration makes me believe the hype. I can't wait to read what she writes next.