ACIS Logo “When communication changes, the novel has to change”: Millennial Modernism in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends

By Vivian Valvano Lynch

The publication of Sally Rooney’s 2017 novel Conversations With Friends resulted in such ludicrous labels for its 26-year old author as‚”the Salinger of the Snapchat generation‚” and “the Jane Austen of the precariat”; the novel itself was deemed able to “sit with Lena Dunham’s (television program) Girls.” Such descriptions belie serious discussion of Rooney’s important, timely project. My title quotes Rooney from an interview given soon after the novel’s appearance in the United States. She is fixated not merely on language and the power of the word but on modes of communication, arguing that historical occurrences and technological advances alter not only the way people communicate in real life but must alter the way they communicate in fiction. Witness, she observes with practicality, how developments in postal delivery necessarily caused changes in epistolary plots in novels. This paper will address Rooney’s conversion of her theory into practice. Conversations With Friends, set contemporaneously in the digital age, has characters who communicate (or attempt to) via a dizzying array of methods: spoken word (face to face, via phone, in stage performance), email, text messaging, instant messaging. Forms of dialogue, sans quotation marks, abound, sometimes sans punctuation. By recording all these modes of communication, Rooney delivers the bulk of the novel’s text to readers. As 20th-century modernists like Joyce refreshed the novel with innovative content accompanied by inventive form, 21st-century writers like Rooney who want to refresh the novel must do the same thing, utilizing the modernity of their own time. A clever quartet drives Rooney’s plot; at its center is Frances, probably the most clever, certainly the most vulnerable. But for all the formal transitions into contemporaneity evident in her narrative, a familiar thematic element from the past remains: the alienated individual. “How do I fool them into thinking I can belong?” Frances asks.

Published on: March 31, 2020