Sally Rooney’s Conversations

» November 28th, 2019

When I was in Dublin last summer I picked up a thin volume called Mr. Salary by the Irish author Sally Rooney. She’s a big deal in Ireland. I read it before going to bed and thought “what’s all the hype with this young woman?” I was in Boston soon after and I tossed it to a friend I said here, but no need to bother. I dismissed Rooney along with so many other contemporary writers who strike me as not good enough to read in lieu of so many great dead writers.

But then I heard Rooney interviewed on a podcast. Something about her made me think I should give her novels a try. What impressed me was her awareness that she should not, as a writer in her 20s, attempt to say more than she knows. What Sally Rooney knows–and what she knows she knows– is how young adults talk to each other and, as they do, how they feel inside as they converse. She covers a lot of Millennial social terrain (a bit of polyamory, open relationships, Tinder sex), and there is at times a forced effort to let us know (through her characters’ reading habits) that she’s fluent in a lot of philosophy and history and politics. But what her novels ultimately offer is a forensic investigation of how people form relationships and, once in those relationships, talk to each other. In this ambition, few writers I know of can compete.

Searching Normal People and Conversations with Friends for passages that demonstrate Rooney’s facility with dialogue, I got stumped. The reason I cannot find a passage to quote is that the conversations in her novels are so situational, so rooted in the specific drama of the moment, that it’s nearly impossible to isolate highlights. There are no highlights. Anything I excerpted would, in isolation, seem mundane to the point of irrelevance. The reason for this is important: In real life conversation, as we all know (but never really think about), a common phrase can mean radically different things depending on the person and the context and the tone. Rooney is so sensitive to her characters and their precise context that the only way to appreciate their conversations is in the framework of the entire book itself.

Rooney’s recognition of her own limits has a drawback, at least for a reader like me (in his 50s). Her Gen X characters are about as developed as the parents in a Charlie Brown episode. In contrast to her Millennial characters, her fully adult characters are without character; they are props. In a way, this is reassuring. Rooney’s antennae reaches only so far as reaches. She’s no George Eliot. But she’s Sally Rooney. She knows it. And I like it.

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