PAIN IS AN EVERYDAY THING for Sally Rooney’s characters. Frances, the protagonist of Rooney’s 2016 debut novel, Conversations with Friends, suffers from endometriosis, her body frequently wracked to the point that she loses consciousness. After traumatic experiences — a visit to a callous doctor’s office, bad sex with a bad date — she levies small, precise attacks on her own body: pinches “on the soft part” inside her elbow, scratches she lets bleed for a three-count before “carefully” bandaging them.
In her new work, Normal People, due out in the United States in April, pain comes in the form of depression and masochism. When Connell, one half of the couple at the novel’s center, fills out the intake form at a campus mental health clinic, he reads a prompt — “I feel my future is hopeless and will only get worse” — and finds that “its syntax seems to have originated inside him.” Marianne, Connell’s on-again-off-again lover, often seeks sexual partners willing to damage her, not because she likes the feeling but because “it relieves her somehow.”
Rooney’s attentiveness to physical suffering is in some ways incongruous with her novels’ other concerns. Praised in The New Yorker as a “psychological portraitist,” she makes Austenesque drama from how her smart yet uncertain young characters come into understanding of others and themselves. In Conversations with Friends — part bildungsroman, part adultery novel, part wry takedown of moneyed intellectuals — Frances’s willingness to take on complicated but meaningful relationships coincides with her recognition of her own principles. Told exclusively via Frances’s rapid, clinical narration, the novel sets her involvement with Nick and Melissa, an actor and his well-connected writer wife, against her bond with best friend Bobbi, an ex and an intellectual soulmate. Frances initially assumes that Nick, as handsome as “an advertisement for cologne,” has too much social capital to share her own sense of vulnerability, an outlook that likewise shades how she relates to Melissa and Bobbi, who are both wealthy and outwardly confident. When Frances starts amending her wrongs, she does so by trying to separate who she’s thought these people to be from who they actually are. “You’re not just an idea to me,” she writes to Bobbi. “If I’ve ever treated you like that I’m sorry.”
This kind of perspectival struggle is likewise at the center of Normal People, though here it becomes even more acute. As it traces Connell and Marianne’s relationship from the point they meet as teenagers (he’s the son of her family’s cleaning woman) through college in Dublin to early adulthood, the novel leapfrogs forward at abrupt intervals. Chapter titles orient us with the time that has passed since we last saw the characters and the current month and year (e.g., “Three Months Later [November 2011]”). This device gives each scene a present-tense urgency while at the same time leaving major events — betrayals, departures — to be told only in retrospect, first from one character’s perspective and then sometimes from the other’s, a divide that underscores the distance that persists between them even when at their most intimate. When, for example, we discover that Connell and Marianne have broken up after a brief, happy college romance, Marianne presents the collapse as the product of Connell’s disregard, while for Connell it’s an involuntary calamity, a by-product of his embarrassment about their class difference. Unable to afford to stay in Dublin over the summer, he pulls away from Marianne when he means to ask if he can crash in her apartment. Even as he’s doing so, he can’t understand how it’s happening: “It was too late to say he wanted to stay with her, that was clear, but when had it become too late?”
Restrained but precise, such scenes place Rooney among a cadre of authors who have renewed the realist novel by doubling down on its capacity for rich psychological description. Like autofictionists such as Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rooney paints fine-grained portraits of emotional and intellectual experiences — particularly ambivalence, regret, and anxiety — that produce a realism specific to the post–Great Recession world. While for the autofictionists this realism is of a piece with their subversion of novelistic artifice — made-up characters, structured plots — Rooney makes such subversion feel unnecessary. Conventional novelistic interiority proves malleable and capacious enough as it is.
But it’s Rooney’s attentiveness to pain that not only distinguishes her from these peers but also makes her novels feel, despite their homage to 19th-century authors like Austen, strangely more contemporary. In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985), essayist and academic Elaine Scarry writes, “Physical pain happens […] not several miles below our feet or many miles above our heads but within the bodies of persons who inhabit the world through which we each day make our way.”
For Scarry, pain brings about an “absolute split between one’s sense of one’s own reality and the reality of other persons.” In Rooney’s novels, though, this split is a preexisting condition, a product of social circumstances as much as of personal experience. Pain is a way of drawing our attention to our isolation and forcing us to think about its causes.
That Rooney frequently links sex and pain isn’t incidental. Both experiences solicit intimacy (pain often leaves us dependent upon others) while at the same time revealing how isolated we can feel in and from our bodies. After Frances has profoundly lonely sex with Nick, which she describes with characteristic detachment (“In bed he went on top and we didn’t make eye contact very much”), she feels like “a damaged person who deserved nothing” and asks Nick to hit her. He refuses and asks why she’s crying. The tears are news to Frances: “It was just something my eyes were doing while we were talking.” In Normal People, too, Marianne asks to be hit as a way to confirm her status as “something unrecognizably debased.” For these characters, the desire to be hit is a perverse request for recognition, for confirmation that someone else considers them as damaged and damageable as they consider themselves, and thus deserving of pain’s quarantine.
Pain’s resistance to linguistic representation is one of its hallmarks. When Emily Dickinson attempted to describe it, she did so by writing around it, delimiting its void:
Pain has an Element of Blank
It cannot recollect
When it began — or if there were
A time when it was not —
It has no Future — but itself —
Scarry, too, captures this quality. “Pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed,” she writes. It’s a strange subject for a novelist, then, but Rooney uses it to mark the horizon of her characters’ self-knowledge. All her protagonists wield language skillfully. Both Conversations with Friends and Normal People feature preternaturally talented writers (Rooney herself is 28) and teem with written communication in the form of texts and emails. In a paradox known to anyone who has ever reveled in a never-ending text conversation, intimacy and understanding can feel easier to generate at writing’s remove. It’s in their written exchanges that characters seem most at home with themselves.
But pain, as Dickinson observed, insists on immediacy. For characters like Frances, Connell, and Marianne this immediacy can feel welcome, as when Frances pinches her elbow for a respite from her churning intellect. But it’s also part of how pain obscures its own root cause. Conversations with Friends and Normal People both suggest that depression stems not just from the body but also from the omnipresent social conditions of the person inhabiting it. “Depression is a humane response to the condition of late capitalism,” Frances tells Nick upon learning he sees a psychiatrist. It’s a glib response she’s repeating from Bobbi, but it captures something important about Nick’s sense of purposelessness. For Connell, too, depression seems to “descend on him from the outside,” Rooney writes,
rather than emanating from somewhere inside himself. Internally, he felt nothing. He was like a freezer item that had thawed too quickly on the outside and was melting everywhere, while the inside was still frozen solid. Somehow he was expressing more emotion than at any time in his life before, while simultaneously feeling less, feeling nothing.
An interface between the person and the world, the body registers what the mind can’t tolerate. In another scene, Connell and Marianne reflect on “the precise historical moment that they are currently living in, the difficulty of observing such a moment in process.” They can’t observe it, but they feel it, again and again. There’s a claustrophobia-inducing quality to Normal People’s meticulous delineation of its protagonists’ emotional lives that’s simultaneously exclusionary — the book’s other characters are always on the fringes and strangely flat. But this is appropriate somehow, a way of depicting how it feels for the protagonists to live in a world that continually frustrates their attempts at comprehension and engagement.
In a 2017 interview in The Irish Times, Rooney describes wanting to use her fiction to think about “questions that I feel we haven’t necessarily got the theory to deal with yet,” such as the limitations of feminism when addressing power imbalances in our personal lives. Her novels suggest that she is thinking broadly about the disjuncture between our politics and our daily experiences. Understanding the inequity of our “precise historical moment,” much like understanding the causes of our pain, is not the same as knowing how to stop it. Indeed, it can make our experience even more distressingly acute.
We often rope the depiction of pain in literature to ideas about empathy, valorizing it for the way it allows readers to get a sense of other people’s struggles and so come to understand them (and themselves) better. Rooney’s novels are ambivalent about such notions. Normal People’s Connell continually wrestles with just what kind of understanding literature offers him. On one hand, reading Austen’s Emma, he finds himself believing, “the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.” Later, though, after attending a famous author’s reading, he’s repulsed by the way literature can function as “class performance,” thinking, “[It’s] fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
What’s the difference between imagination that yields understanding and imagination that results in a “false emotional journey”? Maybe nothing but the reader’s own intentions.
Depictions of pain, then, serve as a kind of litmus test in Rooney’s work. To imagine what pain feels like is to bump up against what you can’t know. Only the callow and self-deceiving think that its fictional representation is anything like the real thing. Perhaps it’s by accepting the not-knowing that we get closest to her characters and their precise historical moment. Perhaps, too, it’s how we feel the truth of our own.