In the way that Orhan Pamuk is the translator of “the East” for Westerners, or Michael Lewis of business psychology for laypeople, Sally Rooney has become, for better and worse, the de facto translator of millennial concerns for non-millennials: a shamanlike guide who speaks both languages.
While plenty of millennials have sung Rooney’s praises, the role of millennial whisperer has been foisted upon the 28-year-old Irish novelist — author of Conversations With Friends and her follow-up, Normal People, out next week — largely by non-millennials, those in the old guard of media rushing to find and anoint the generation’s voice. A column in The Guardian, which advises a schoolteacher who wants to better understand “the avocado generation,” recommends her novels, as “Rooney writes in a distinctly modern, flippantly confessional style she attributes to long exchanges with friends online. You’ll feel like you hacked her Facebook Messenger.”
Beyond her spare, online-savvy, Tao Lin–esque emotionally distant prose, what’s crucial to Rooney’s generational role is that she mostly lets previous generations off the hook. The fact that her characters also speak the language of millennial socialism and Marxism while employing it as more put-on social identity than character motivator is, for their more fiscally conservative forebears, an added bonus.
Normal People is similar to Conversations With Friends in that a tense relationship takes center stage, but her second novel is even more pared down, tackling one instead of two romances. The main characters’ backgrounds prescribe their lives and personalities. Marianne is from a wealthy family; she’s not deemed particularly attractive in secondary school; and she’s disconnected from herself, a blanked-out screen, especially in her own perception. When she looks into a mirror: “It’s a 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.” Connell, on the other hand, is working class — his kindhearted mother, Lorraine, is Marianne’s family’s housekeeper — but as a soccer player with a face like “a criminal,” he’s more attractive and popular. He and Marianne sleep together; he cruelly asks her to keep it a secret, and she does: Family abuse has rendered her submissive. When he later asks a different girl to a dance, they break it off.
Their relationship starts up again at Trinity College — their talents having vaulted them from western Ireland to Dublin — but then it stops, and then it starts again, the rest of the novel a skittering seismograph of their mutual love and hate. The net result, though, is oddly peaceful, a straight line by mathematical average: Each push elicits an equal pull; each advantage reveals an equal disadvantage.
The politics of Rooney’s novels are ultimately in service to her characters’ eccentricities. The emotional distance of her style applies equally to the books’ politics, making her more of a sociologist than a novelist. Even when narrated in the present tense, the events that transpire in Conversations With Friends and Normal People don’t feel like lived experiences, exactly. They feel as though they happened in the past and a clever person is describing why and how they happened. It’s like a term paper on tropes turned into a novel: Here are all the recognizable characters and power dynamics; let’s add a little to them, mix them up, then analyze them. When Connell reflects on his wealthy university classmates, he sounds like F. Scott Fitzgerald discussing “the rich” with Ernest Hemingway, at once bewildered and nostalgic and very much removed even from his own self. “They just move through the world in a different way,” Rooney writes, in the limited third person, “and he’ll probably never really understand them, and he knows they will never understand him, or even try.”
It’s as if the fullness of Connell’s character has been predetermined. It’s Calvinism for the secular age, class-defining personhood, i.e., Marxism. The result is a hyperflatness, a hypersmoothness. There is relatively little agency at play, relatively few decisions being made. He’s poorer; she’s richer. He’s more attractive; she’s initially less attractive. Connell’s social status is the reason he keeps the relationship a secret; Marianne’s wealth causes her to blossom at Trinity.
None of this is meant to dismiss the novels because, in a way, Rooney has this all precisely right. The truest expression of what it feels like to live in the modern, postcapitalist political sphere is this oppressive feeling of lacking agency, propelled by a current of politics and power dynamics that are out of our control. It also feels realistic that the adults are the ones who actually have control — making life-altering decisions for them. The young folks are playing by the rules of older generations.
The politics of Rooney’s worlds define her characters’ personalities and interactions, but those characters also seem fully resigned to them. There is no interest in revolt, no interest in change. This is, I would imagine, particularly comforting to older generations, as it relegates talk of revolution to tongue-in-cheek asides. When, for instance, Connell rides the bus to meet Marianne at a café, he sees a protest but doesn’t notice what it’s for. “The household tax or something,” he says to Marianne, whereupon she quips, “Well, best of luck to them. May the revolution be swift and brutal.” One can imagine this line being said at a dinner party in an affluent suburb, the adults in the room getting a kick out of it. Kids and their socialism these days! Rooney’s characters are just sufficiently certain that the status quo will persist that any complaints or underlying frustrations come to seem ultimately superficial. In the end, politics isn’t actually that big of a deal. It’ll all work out.
And it does. The ending is a provisionally happy one; love and meritocracy prevail. And yet, Connell maintains the upper hand, as at the start. It’s a dynamic tied up in the politics of gender and abuse, which in this case seem to override concerns of class. But the lesson is that you are who you are, not who you want to be.