The anxieties of Sally Rooney’s jargon-dropping, feminist, millennial women who desire and seek intimacies but often find themselves in patterns of abusive heterosexual relationships, capture the current cultural moment of damaged intimacies, ambitionless adulthood in these times of late capitalism, and economic precarity.
In “Unread Messages”, an excerpt of Sally Rooney’s latest novel Beautiful World, Where are You, the protagonist Eileen, wanly checks out her ex-boyfriend’s profile on social media. She discovers that his most recent update was “a photograph of a pigeon in a gutter, its head buried inside a discarded crisp packet.” Scrolling further, she sees that the caption read: “same.” Reading this I found myself reflexively exclaiming, “mood”.
Sally Rooney has taken the literary as well as the cultural world, by a storm. At just 27, she has written two bestsellers, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, the latter being long listed for the Booker Prize and adapted as a Hulu Television series. The New York Times has hailed her as the greatest millennial author of all time, and Taylor Swift has been alleged to be writing songs about her stories in her Folklore album.
There is no denying of Sally Rooney’s cult-like popularity which has much to do with her distinct voice, of being the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”. While J D Salinger writing Catcher In The Rye captured the intimacies and anxieties of his generation, Rooney does similarly for hers: the millennials.
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Rooney’s characters exhibit a clinical clarity of how the world works. Their conversations and observations alternate between dropping Marxist and feminist theoretical hot takes in everyday conversations, while planning trips to nearby European countries. Her characters, who mostly communicate through instant messaging, engage in proclamations of “dismantling capitalism”, and constant theorising, failing which you are judged, “you have to do more than say you’re anti-things”, snaps Bobbi to Frances in Conversations with Friends, when she plainly says that she’s anti-love. Closer to home, in our own digital vicinities, we find people reposting the same politically relevant story of the day, and writing on their Tinder and Bumble bios, “swipe right only if left”.
But is anyone really dismantling capitalism?
Hu writing for the Ringer notes how “After reading a Rooney novel, I don’t necessarily want to instigate a mass uprising” and neither does she want us to. Sally Rooney presents to us self-reflexive, critical, young millennial women, who are constantly struggling against the disjuncture between their politics and practice. This awareness and propensity towards deconstructing the world of its various ‘isms’, while being largely inert in our actions, captures our current cultural condition. This inertia is understandable, surrounded within the insurmountable might of late capitalism, imagining a future becomes pointless. Thus, we have all resigned ourselves to reposting memes about our disenchantment with capitalism, and finding the proverbial plastic-head pigeon in the gutter – an aftermath of the ecological crisis – a classic “mood”.
This tired resignation also extends itself to interpersonal relationships. The young millennial women in the books of Sally Rooney are guarded, averse to vulnerability and constantly struggle to appear aloof. Desire and shame are intricately linked in the sexualities of these women, stemming from traumatic childhoods and formative relationships. There is a gap in language to articulate what they really want, which soon becomes a choice, something they can have control over, “I liked him but he didn’t need to know that” says Frances. This struggle for control, often reflected in discussions with my girlfriends, becomes a response to a belief in the inevitable failures of heterosexual desires. Both Marianne and Frances grow up in emotionally abusive circumstances where they were made to feel powerless and unworthy of love. Thus, their relationship to sex becomes extremely troubled, translating into actively seeking shame and humiliation in relationships.
But Rooney doesn’t portray this as tragic. Instead, she writes, “helplessness was often a way of exercising power”, painting a picture of a generational condition of damaged intimacies, especially for women, for whom, power in helplessness becomes their only way to control the world around them.
This particular strand of the helpless millennial woman has invited many discussions with my friends and acquaintances. Sara, 22, notes that Frances “is definitely a mirror to the kind of struggles millennial women go through” and Ishanee, 25, observes how she feels “very viscerally close to the kind of people (Rooney) describes”.
There seems to be a collective resonance with the women of Sally Rooney, and that is concerning.
The helplessness of Rooney’s women jeopardises any scope for a healthy relationship. Liu writes how the “millennial woman par excellence is a deeply disempowered human being”, which is a phenomenon culturally visible in other fictional worlds with millennial characters, like Fleabag and Girls. This is not an indictment of the portrayal of these women, but a critical reflection of what it says about our generation. In all these characters, there is a marketable lethargy around taking action. There is helplessness and submission, jokes and ennui and a massive disinvestment in wanting to change things for the better. But, one cannot easily blame them, the world around has made it increasingly difficult to hope for better things.
However, this anesthetic submission does more harm than any good. It has taken shape of a discourse that Indiana Seresin calls “heteropessimism”. When Frances says, “I consider masculinity personally oppressive”, a similar thought is echoed by Maggie Nelson in Argonauts, “heterosexuality always embarrasses me”. In both these instances, the problem of heterosexuality becomes a personal issue. But heterosexuality is nobody’s personal problem.
This tussle between one’s heterosexual desires and shame around it, is deeply troubling, and a resignation to it as ‘inevitable failure’ or “embarrassing” divests us of any power to change it. And we must believe that we can change it, since as Seresin says, “hundreds of women are currently dying of it, murdered by their husbands, boyfriends or exes”.
Despite the political ambitions of Rooney’s books, she offers no critique of life under global capitalism. Instead, she poses uncomfortable questions. In a 2017 interview in The Irish Times, Rooney notes how she uses her writing to think about “questions that I feel haven’t necessarily got the theory to deal with yet, or at all”. She observes how neither Frances and Nick in Conversations with Friends are unfamiliar with feminist theory, but still grapple with problems in their relationship which theory wasn’t able to solve, “…how can we know all the theory, and feel at least passingly familiar with the political context, but still not be able to answer these questions? They demand new theoretical responses from us.” This is where the sensation of Sally Rooney lies — in exposing the uneasy tension between our politics and daily experiences.
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One night, after finishing rereading Conversations with Friends for the umpteenth time, I find myself mindlessly scrolling through Twitter. A stranger asks, if the pop singer Lorde is, afterall, a communist, since her new album has songs titled, “Leader of a New Regime”, “The Man with an Axe” and “Big Star”. I chuckle. Then repost it.
Ankita Dhar Karmakar is a recent post graduate in English Literature from Ambedkar University. She’s mostly chattering away in her book club and making digital artwork. She is fascinated by digital sexual cultures and cats! You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Featured image source: The Irish Times