Sally Rooney: The Dark Side

By GD DessAugust 14, 2019

Sally Rooney: The Dark Side
SALLY ROONEY HAS BEEN hailed as “the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism” by The New Yorker, a “major talent” by the Guardian, and, according to Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, on her way to become “the major literary figure of our time, a generational talent.” Assuredly, assigning someone to a category is an empowering act for critics, insinuating as it does in this case, that they have identified the zeitgeist and know who exemplifies it and who doesn’t; but it can be de-individualizing and detrimental for an artist since it marginalizes them by situating them in a cohort to which they may have only superficial, or at best tangential relevance.

In the vertiginous present of late capitalism [1] in which we experience an unparalleled rate of change, as tomorrow’s news headlines obliterate today’s — during the lifespan of a tweet — what can it mean to be hailed as “the first great millennial novelist”? In thinking about that question and the hyperbole attached to Rooney’s work, I remembered what the critic Harold Rosenberg said about generational thinking: “Except as a primitive means of telling time, generations are not a serious category. The opinions of a generation never amount to more than fashion. […] In any case, belonging to a generation is one of the lowest forms of solidarity.”

Rooney’s talent and interests, however, may range outside her generation’s cohort. Self-proclaimed Marxist, and author of Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), as well as several short stories, Rooney is an exemplary storyteller. Her novels are narrated with verve, and an insouciant, knowing voice. Seductive from beginning to end, one can hardly put the books down after the first page. Parse or cut apart any Rooney sentence and it will not bleed; there is not a misplaced word or jarring adjective anywhere. Flat and precise, cool and controlled throughout, the relentless cascade of her unadorned sentences creates an austere beauty. Normal People was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was recently awarded the Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, or Nibbies. And yet, particularly in Normal People — where she is most conspicuously engaged in castigating and indicting late capitalism, while invoking the conceptual thrust of some of the foremost thinkers on the topic — the sexual acts she writes about alongside late capitalism’s depredations are so insufficiently accounted for as to often appear gratuitous and erosive to the narrative itself.

The darkness at the heart of Rooney’s work is first encountered in Frances, the narrator of Conversations with Friends. It’s hard to imagine a character who feels herself less worthy of love, and dislikes herself as intensely. Throughout the novel Frances incessantly belittles herself: “I figured my own body as an item of garbage”; “I felt that I was a damaged person who deserved nothing.” Filled with self-loathing she claims she lacks a “real personality” and is incapable of enjoying “things like other people.”

Frances’s love interest, Nick, is married. He is a depressive whose acting career never took off. He tells Frances he feels “like this very worthless, pathetic person.” As it turns out, they are perfect for each other. She sees him as someone who can help her “make myself into this kind of person: someone worthy of praise, worthy of love.”

These two unhappy individuals do come to love each other. We hope that in their pillow talk or in the emails they exchange we’ll learn why Frances feels as hopeless and unworthy as she does. We wait for her to come clean and confess that her feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem are due to her low social status and lack of wealth, but she does not. This is disappointing since her relentless self-deprecation throughout the story begs the question. Moreover, not only does she beat herself up verbally, she inflicts physical pain upon herself with alarming, if not melodramatic frequency: at various points in the story she pinches her arm until the skin turns red and stings, she gouges a hole in her leg, she scratches her arm open until it bleeds. Her longing to have physical pain inflicted on her comes to its zenith when she and Nick are in bed having sex and Frances asks Nick to hit her. Nick refuses. She tells him: “Some people like it,” as well as, “You can do whatever you want with me.” He is at a loss. He’s been invited to treat her as an object in his power, but he can’t and the subject is dropped. The couple separates after this (Frances chews the inside of her cheek until it bleeds), only to reunite once again at the conclusion of the novel.

Rooney pointed out in a New Yorker interview that “[a] lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” We see this in the ending of Conversations with Friends. Nick didn’t comply with Frances’s desire to inflict pain upon her, but Rooney apparently felt she needed to be punished, ostensibly, one supposes, for her transgression of luring a married man into committing adultery. At the conclusion of the story, Frances is told that the stomach pain she began experiencing at the beginning of the book — from which she suffers throughout the story — is not just “period pain.” It is endometriosis, a painful and often debilitating condition. Thus, just as Hawthorne branded Hester for her extramarital affair in The Scarlet Letter, Rooney brands Frances with an incurable disease, as indelible as the scarlet letter. An odd, and somehow un-millennial ending, one which eschews the political, and reverts to the retrograde idea of religious retribution for committing sins of the flesh.

Rooney’s sophomore novel, Normal People, like Conversations with Friends, is also a love story; one that traces the relationship “between two people [Marianne and Connell] who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone.” Marianne is rich and lives in a mansion, Connell is poor and his mother works as Marianne’s housekeeper. Connell is smart, popular in school; Marianne is also smart, but thought of as weird. Rooney describes her: “[S]he is considered an object of disgust.” Like Frances, she dislikes herself. Connell comes from a single-parent household headed by a caring mother. Marianne also comes from a single-parent household but her mother is cruel and abusive; the father, while alive, used to beat both Marianne and her mother. An activity that her mother (verbally) and her brother (physically) continue with great gusto.

In Conversations with Friends, Rooney went to extraordinary lengths to convey Frances’s deep-seated self-loathing, without revealing its cause. In Normal People, Rooney saddles Connell with the same type of angst and self-doubt that weighed so heavily on Frances in the earlier work; however, this time she ties it to his material conditions.

Rooney’s thinking about social/class power issues appears to be influenced by the writing of Mark Fisher. [2] Fisher was a British cultural and social theorist who had an acute understanding of the psychological and cultural consequences of capitalism. Influenced by such writers as Marcuse, Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Jameson, et al, Fisher is the author of the influential book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009). When Rooney writes in Conversations with Friends that Bobbi thinks “depression is a humane response to the conditions of late capitalism” she is echoing the thought of Fisher (also a depressive who was given to harming himself and committed suicide in 2017), who believed that capitalist ideology inflicts violent and irreparable damage upon individuals. In a 2014 blog post, “Good for Nothing,” Fisher wrote about the “sense of ontological inferiority” that leads to a feeling of worthlessness; he located the nexus of these sensations in social and class power.

In the same post, Fisher says that he recently become aware of the work of David Smail, whose influence can also be seen in Rooney’s. Smail focused on investigating “the societal origins of individual malaise” and articulated how inequality causes chronic insecurity. In his book Power Interest and Psychology: Elements of a Social Materialist Understanding of Class, Smail argues that “global capitalism has enormous effects on vast numbers of people in the world who are themselves in no position to be able to see into its operation.”

Chronic insecurity coupled with economically and spiritually desperate people are Rooney’s characters to a tee. Fisher quotes Smail’s thinking about class differences:

Someone who moves out of the social sphere they are “supposed” to occupy is always in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror: “…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”

In Normal People, this is Connell’s situation: a poor boy who manages to attend Trinity on scholarship. Without friends, surrounded by rich kids, Connell’s distress, “previously chronic and low-level,” becomes severe, interfering with his social functioning. Following close to the letter of Smail’s exposition above, Rooney describes Connell’s symptoms as he explains them to a social worker:

Once or twice he’s had major panic attacks: hyperventilation, chest pain, pins and needles all over his body. A feeling of dissociation from his senses, an inability to think straight or interpret what he sees and hears. […] [H]e thought he was losing his mind, that the whole cognitive framework by which he made sense of the world had disintegrated for good …

The social worker offers Connell nothing but platitudes. When he breaks down crying, she gives him a tissue. As he is leaving the office, she hands him worksheets and “photocopied pages about dealing with anxiety, which he pretends he will read.”

Marianne, on the other hand, is a masochist. At Trinity, she has a boyfriend, who, at her request, beats her. Away for a semester in Sweden, she hooks up with a man who ties her up and does “gruesome” things to her. Connell recognizes that “[t]here’s something frightening about her, some huge emptiness in the pit of her being.” But rather than think about how to help her, he consoles himself with the thought that “Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnamable spiritual injury. […] But he was never damaged like she was.”

Naming the “unnamable spiritual injury” becomes the central (unresolved) mystery of Normal People. This is unfortunate because the answer ties into the dialectic about what constitutes a normal person, a question both protagonists constantly ask themselves. Marianne, in particular, remains perpetually perplexed: “I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people,” she says. Rooney indicts late capitalism as the distal cause of Connell’s depression, but is unwilling to name the proximal cause of Marianne’s “huge emptiness in the pit of her being.” The climax of the novel revolves around sex and violence. Connell and Marianne are in bed together, and she pops the same question Frances asked Nick: “Will you hit me?” Connell refuses, the sex stops (there is as much coitus interruptus as there is coitus in Rooney’s novels), and she goes home.

In thinking about what happened, Marianne concludes that Connell has become adjusted to the real world, while she knows that “she is a bad person, corrupted, wrong, and all her efforts to be right, to have the right opinions, to say the right things, these efforts only disguise what is buried inside her, the evil part of herself.”

In the final chapter, Marianne and Connell have reconciled (again), and we are told — incredulously — that “[Marianne’s] a normal person now.” Given her degeneration, her self-debasement, and the evil she says she harbors within herself, it is impossible to imagine how in the space of a chapter or two she became “normal.” Rooney tells us it is Connell’s doing: “She was in his power, he had chosen to redeem her, she was redeemed.” This is a lovely sentence, but the comma separating the two independent clauses “he had chosen to redeem her” and “she was redeemed” functions not as a punctuation mark, but as an elision that has suppressed the causal explanation of how he achieved this feat. For us to believe that Connell figured out some emotional hack to make her submit to him without violence and become “normal” is, in a socialist-realistic novel of manners, I think, too much for Rooney to ask of readers.

Normal People opens with an epigraph from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, which Rooney may have intended as the answer as to how Connell effected the change:

It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.

Analyzing this, it is not unreasonable to presume that Connell’s “peculiar influence” alters Marianne’s “mental poise” and this “conversion” redeems her and makes her “normal.” Of course, a conversion of this type would be closer to a miracle, but miracles (it is said) do happen. Yet given the stilted nature of the couple’s relationship, and the number of misreads that characterize their talks, Connell seems ill equipped to carry this off. More troubling, however, is the turn to spirituality for a “cure” and the fact that a description of the “conversion” has been left out of the narrative.

Ultimately, Normal People is a disappointing read. This is largely due to Rooney’s failure to develop the cause and effect dialectic surrounding the abuse Marianne suffered as a child that has led to the masochism she practices as an adult. Moreover, her refusal to name a first cause for it in Normal People is especially puzzling because Marianne and Connell made their fictional debut in Rooney’s 2016 short story, “At the Clinic,” published in the White Review.

In “At the Clinic,” Marianne is the same as she appears in Normal People: intelligent, unattractive, unpopular (“everyone hated her”). In this story, too, she has a boyfriend who ties her up and hits her with a belt, just as Jamie beat Marianne in Normal People. Additionally, she reveals that when she was a teenager, her mother had a boyfriend who “came into Marianne’s room at night sometimes to ‘talk’.”

Just as we know the expression “had his way with her” means rape, we’re fairly certain that “talk” is a euphemism for some sort of sexual abuse. Marianne also confides: “Sometimes I think I deserve bad things because I’m a bad person.” This statement (a variant of which appears in Normal People) reveals the victim mindset of rationalizing an action or event they were subjected to against their will. From the ontological state of “being bad” arises the sense of lack of agency, worthlessness, and self-disgust — the belief that punishment is necessary and justified. In short, masochism, the dark specter that haunts Rooney’s fiction and which she appears incapable of discharging. [3]

In Normal People, the lack of phenomenological analysis to tie Marianne’s behavior to its cause makes the novel at best uneven (after all, Connell’s distress is linked to his material conditions), and at worst incomplete. It leaves us with the impression that the “evil part” inside of Marianne is something mysterious — an “unnamable spiritual injury” — when we know that, like Connell’s distress, it has material and social causes.

The women in Rooney’s novels all too frequently come across as damsels in distress, and are portrayed as dependent upon men to help them attain self-actualization, which strikes some readers as politically regressive. It is a testament to Rooney’s storytelling ability that, for the most part, saves her novels from becoming Gothic romantic tales about hapless women who dote on feckless men. The women have been ravaged in some way, either by the system of late capitalism or by their dysfunctional families, but they continue to get on with their lives. They know what they want: a connection to another person, a feeling of worthiness, in a word: love.

Both novels end on a religious note: in Conversations with Friends, for her transgressions of the flesh, the adulterer Frances is punished by a disease. In Normal People, Marianne’s “redemption” is brought about through an act of grace. Given Rooney’s Marxism, her refusal to provide a social solution, and her reversion to “the opium of the people” as a way to resolve her protagonists’ dilemmas, seems out of sync with her beliefs and trivializes her characters’ despair, which she went to such great pains to portray. However, in Rooney’s metaphysic, love may be the only way to escape the all-encompassing technology of social control that is our capitalist society, since love presumably remains an ideal space that has not yet been (totally) colonized and controlled by this demonic power.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether Rooney turns out to be more of a parochial writer than a “millennial” one. Rooney is trying to tell us something. Politics are in the forefront, but I’m guessing there is a dark secret lurking in the background. Sooner or later I’m sure she will fully explore it. I, for one, can’t wait.


GD Dess is the author of the novels His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble.


[1] While the term has become au courant, “late capitalism” was first used by Werner Sombart (1863–1941), a German social economist, around the turn of the last century. The term was then picked by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, and referred to the increasing tendency of big business and government to exercise excessive (coercive) control over all cultural and social life. It was introduced to the English-speaking world by Fredric Jameson in his 1984 essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” which was subsequently included in his book of same name, published in 1991. 

[2] A comprehensive collection of Fisher’s works was published by Repeater in 2018: K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2014–2016), edited by Darren Ambrose.

[3] In a nonfiction essay that appeared in the Dublin Review in 2015, Rooney chronicled her experiences as a collegiate debater. The title of the essay is a foreboding double entendre: “Even if You Beat Me.” The essay concludes with this line: “And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.” The subtle hubris of this proclamation should not be lost on us: even if beaten, one remains the winner. In her notes on De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, Simone de Beauvoir makes a similar point, commenting on de Sade’s sexual proclivities: “In demanding that his partner mistreat him, he tyrannizes him; his humiliating exhibitions and the tortures he undergoes humiliate and torture the other as well.”

LARB Contributor

GD Dess is an author (His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble), essayist, and critic whose work appears in LARB and elsewhere. He has just finished a new novel, Here for Love. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @gdess.


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