In Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, the protagonist narrates an episode familiar to most people under thirty-five: “I continued to read through my log of conversations with Bobbi, entering search terms which seemed willfully calculated to annoy me.” The character is staring at an instant messenger transcript full of disjointed messages, sentences broken up, interspersed over several lines of unpolished text. Older reviewers have noted the interweaving of digital communication in Rooney’s fiction as characteristic of the novelist’s chronicling of millennial lives.
Every decade, older figures balk at the inscrutable peculiarity of the younger generation, but the attitude towards millennials in particular seems to have driven the media into a frenzy. Millennials are allegedly responsible for every ill under the sun, they refuse to participate in normal activities such as buying houses and having children, and spend far too much money on avocados and not enough on diamonds, as though they exist outside of an imploding and unsustainable economic system.
Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, was recently published in the United States, and sold incredibly well in Britain and Ireland upon publication in 2018, especially among younger people.
Her success set off some impressive handwringing from prickly older men, most notably the fifty-seven-year old novelist Will Self, who complained:
You only need to look at the kind of books being lauded at the moment to see how simple-minded they are. What’s now regarded as serious literature would, 10 or 20 years ago, have been regarded as young-adult fiction. I read a few pages of the Sally Rooney book. It may say things that millennials want to hear reflected back at them, but it’s very simple stuff with no literary ambition that I can see. I don’t mean to be overly critical, but in terms of literary history, it does seem a bit of a regression. If you consider that Nabokov’s Lolita was on the New York Times bestseller list for nine months, it’s a different order of literature.
It’s difficult to read Self’s barbs as anything other than jealousy, not least because the interview was intended to promote his latest venture: messages he composed for the fortune cookies of a Chinese restaurant in London. Besides being easily outsold by a female novelist thirty years his junior, Self is part of a cluster of aging British novelists whose heyday mostly fell within the Blair years, and whose influence has waned as the politics of New Labour have been extinguished by Corbynism and these darned millennials.
The archetype of the Blairite state-of-the-nation novel is arguably Ian McEwan’s Saturday: a 2005 book detailing a day in the life of a staunchly upper-middle-class family in a plush house near Tony Blair’s own address in London, on the day of the march against the Iraq war. The protagonist, a wealthy surgeon named Henry Perowne, expresses smug skepticism about the aims of the protest, and the novel culminates in an excruciating scene where two violent criminals are dissuaded from raping Perowne’s daughter by her recitation of poetry. Art can dissuade the most lumpen hardened thugs from their life of crime!
McEwan’s excruciating stabs at class analysis from 2003 have been replaced by a lamentable tone-deafness towards younger people, as of late: his 2016 novel Nutshell features a sentient, hyper-literary fetus that maintains a baffling fury at campus culture wars and trigger warnings. Self and McEwan, like Principal Skinner, have surveyed the trappings of modern culture and decided it is the children, not furious boomers, who are out of touch.
Rooney’s understanding of class far outstrips her detractors: younger characters are precarious and sharply aware of the invisible undertow class exerts on their career trajectories; older characters’ tony houses are spoken of in awe and clearly out of reach of any young people but the fabulously wealthy. In Conversations with Friends, Rooney writes:
Bobbi had a way of belonging everywhere. Though she said she hated the rich, her family was rich, and other people recognized her as one of their own. They took her radical politics as a kind of bourgeois self-deprecation, nothing very serious, and talked to her about restaurants or where to stay in Rome. I felt out of place in these situations, ignorant and bitter, but also fearful of being discovered as a moderately poor person and a communist. Equally, 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.
The expansion of college education offers the illusion of social mobility, but the subconscious codification of class rituals and tics are a means for the wealthy to recognize their own, while working-class kids feel socially excluded from their peers and ostracized from their own social milieu for having ideas ostensibly above their station.
In Normal People, the central couple, Marianne and Connell, are from starkly different backgrounds, with Connell’s mother cleaning Marianne’s enormous home, and the two grappling with differing conundrums as they make their way through school, then university. Even when both win the same prestigious scholarship, Rooney notes the disparities: “For Marianne, who doesn’t pay her own rent or tuition and has no real concept of how much these things cost, it’s just a matter of reputation. She would like her superior intellect to be affirmed in public by the transfer of large amounts of money. That way she could affect modesty without having anyone actually believe her.”
Connell’s experience is far different:
Everything is possible now because of the scholarship. His rent is paid, his tuition is covered, he has a free meal every day in college. This is why he’s able to spend half of the summer travelling around Europe, disseminating currency with the carefree attitude of a rich person. He’s explained it, or tried to explain it, in emails to Marianne. For her the scholarship was a self-esteem boost, a happy confirmation of what she has always believed about herself anyway: that she’s special. Connell has never really known whether to believe that about himself and he still doesn’t know. For him, the scholarship is a giant material fact, like a vast cruise ship that has appeared out of nowhere . . . That’s money, the substance that make the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.
Money is as real as class in both novels. At the beginning of Normal People, Marianne’s sexual capital is far lower than Connell’s. College shifts this, with Marianne understanding the power she can wield with greater confidence, but for Connell class remains as tangible as a physical wall in his head, a background hum that limits his self-esteem and reminds him endlessly that his success and comfort could be torn away at any moment, and he could be cast back socially to his past life. (At one point, cash-flow problems do in fact force him to move back to his mother’s home).
Class and the precarity of the modern economy inform characters’ politics in both novels. In Conversations with Friends, Frances identifies as a communist, but does so with a self-conscious knowledge that doing so is likely to be seen as gauche and immature by older or wealthier characters. Connell at one point votes for the communist candidate in local elections, burning with embarrassment when his mother lightly ribs him for considering it, and recommends Marianne read Marx and Engels in a spectacularly executed feat of mansplaining: “He told her she should try reading The Communist Manifesto, he thought she would like it, and he offered to write down the title for her so she wouldn’t forget. I know what The Communist Manifesto is called, she said.”
The endless speculation in the media about why many young people are preoccupied with left politics is always put down to millennials’ immaturity, but Rooney’s characters exhibit a knowing awareness of the mockery their politics elicits in older generations, and the class structures and social conditions that have forged those politics are deftly exhibited, including in the easy way characters in their forties made money and the comfort they continue to enjoy even after the global financial crisis and the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.
What makes Rooney’s books stand out in comparison to the work of older novelists are the intertwined treatments of sex and written communication, both examining how social connection functions and differs in millennial lives. Neither novels are short of sex scenes, but Rooney manages to avoid the excruciatingly embarrassing traps many older male novelists find themselves mired in.
Eschewing the purple prose that describes women’s breasts and genitalia as unburdened by gravity, or akin to marble or some genus of complex flower, sex is about connection, how minds as much as bodies interact, and how characters navigate not knowing what the other is thinking even if they can read physiological cues. The treatment of sex is also far more traditional than voyeuristic pieces about millennial sex lives tend to be: the characters aren’t mindless atavistic automatons, even during flings, one-night stands, or extramarital affairs. Feelings get hurt, and are front and center.
Similarly, the way technology impacts relationships is presented naturalistically. Sprawling conversations between characters are documented digitally, offering the opportunity for characters to decide how they wish to present themselves — an intimacy that prevents bystanders and friends from listening into conversations — but also the flip side: a greater opportunity to pore over words for hidden meaning, reading multiple intentions and moods into words that might be flippant or sharply loaded. One sentence might be utterly freighted with meaning and intended to wound, but equally tossed into the digital ether while the sender is on the move or barely paying attention to their phone.
Hand-wringing about digital culture always assume young people barely talk to each other, without acknowledging what our online lives entail: an endless moving corpus of discussion with people we love, creating a vast written and searchable archive that can be as casual or meaningful as we wish. A character in a pre-crash novel can spend time mulling over a sentence uttered at a party or rifling through a box of letters, but won’t have to reckon with a careless search term throwing up unexpected past instant message conversations with an ex-lover, or the effects of poring over hours-long conversations online late at night.
The buzz around Rooney’s books also puts paid to the notion that millennials are shallow and unconcerned with culture, as so many tired think pieces argue. Simply put, the books sell well because they are so rare, reflecting the trappings of young life in a way that the novels of the old guard have mostly not bothered even attempting. Neither novel is free of criticism of how young people live and behave, but they deal seriously with digital culture, questions around class, relationships, and the limitations of the economy, and take relationships as seriously as they ought to.
If men like Self and McEwan want to attract the kind of buzz around their work that Rooney has garnered, they might consider more serious observational writing in fiction, and less whining and solipsism about The State of the Youth. Politics has moved on, and is unlikely to return to the old regime. Art and literature should follow suit.