Conversations with Friends
Faber & Faber
We meet Frances, the protagonist of Conversations with Friends, in a taxi with two other women going to “a stranger’s home, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming”. The scene is set: all at once, we are introduced to our exquisitely sharp, dissociatively self-conscious narrator, to her best friend and ex-partner Bobbi, and to Melissa, the newly-met “stranger”, who invites the friends to her Monkstown house. With the addition of Melissa’s husband Nick, the novel works through the conversations between these characters, coiling itself around the words and silences they share. All four have more culture than capital: Frances has moved to Dublin from Mayo to study English, and relies on a paltry allowance from her alcoholic father; Bobbi has a comfortable background but insists on living below her means; and while mid-thirties Nick and Melissa have an ample home teeming with lacquered kitchen appliances, they are acutely aware of how precarious their professions are (actor and journalist, respectively).
In general, the descriptors we might ordinarily deploy to pin down these characters’ credentials, in terms of privilege, identity, morality, status don’t really make sense here. The Trinity arts students are not quite middle-class; Frances is a performance poet but, she insists, not quite a writer; Nick and Melissa have a not quite affectionate marriage, strangely loving but distant and tense. And when Frances and Nick start sleeping together, it is not quite a dramatic affair – not entirely hidden, not necessarily inadvisable and not at all seedy.
The relationships described here are tiny, precise and intimate, but they are soaked through with their socio-economic context. Talk is a complex currency throughout, at its most successful a means of demonstrating political fluency and subtle gradations in opinion (there are plenty of discussions “in which we all shared similar positions but expressed ourselves differently”) or a sophisticated tool to express and decipher complex emotions. But words also break down, and some of the book’s most compelling moments occur when language fails its protagonists, when they can’t quite reach what they want to say. Rooney draws a richly textured network of communication, where emails, instant messages, Word documents and Google searches seamlessly slide into the novel’s discursive fabric.
This is a curious, skilful form of first-person storytelling. The reader finds herself completely submerged, swamped in Frances’s minutely detailed perspective. And still the narrative resists psychological individualism: Frances finds herself out only through her interactions with others. Her finest epiphanies come about through dialogue, listening, and, to borrow E.M. Cioran’s phrase, thinking against herself. This sometimes happens too neatly, and themes of family messiness get bracketed off a little too much. But overall, Rooney draws a generous, emotionally compelling picture, attributing dignity and importance to her protagonist’s struggle to live her theory, and, more generally, to live.
A broader question asked is how any of us can find a way to be in the world, if we accept our complicity – and that of those we love – in dizzying, diffuse systems of social injustice. Radical passivity is one solution; immersion in bodily pleasure or pain another. Perhaps Frances’s most difficult task is in reconciling her stringent ethics with her deep attraction to aesthetic, intellectual and sensory joy, in learning how to “do more than say you’re anti things”. The novel itself suffers no such dilemma. It’s a smart, thoughtful and important book and nothing less than a delight to read.
Words – Gill Moore