On Debut Novelist Sally Rooney's 21st Century Adultery Novel for the Internet Age

Irish writer Sally Rooney's methodical, calculated, ultimately rewarding debut novel, Conversations With Friends, explores real love lost, found, and transformed.

Conversations With Friends

Publisher: Hogarth
Language: English
Author: Sally Rooney
Hardcover: 320 pages
ISBN-10: 0451499050
ISBN-13: 978-0451499059
Publication date: 2017-07

Assessing the merits of a debut novel like Conversations With Friends is a tricky proposition. Parts ponderous, lumbering, and a little too audaciously high-minded, the story takes time to settle. Call it an adultery novel for the 21st century, and you will get close to a sense of how to perceive this quartet of emotional intellectuals.

Rooney is an assured, focused, very methodical writer here who seems to be working exclusively within familiar terrain. Frances and Bobbi were girlfriends for two years, no longer together romantically but still -- at least as we read it (from Frances’s voice) -- a connected duo. Now in their 20s, and like young people around the word (Frances and Bobbi are Dubliners), they are trying to find themselves and develop a unique presence as poetic spoken word performance artists.

Since Frances’s voice is the only one we follow, our allegiances might naturally lean towards her as she drifts from ex-girlfriend Bobbi and enters the lives of Melissa and Nick. This second couple enters the story early on and are pivotal in sparking the conversations, the dialogues, the major movements in these character’s lives. Melissa is an essayist/photographer from the wealthier part of Dublin, probably 15 years older than Frances and Bobbi. Melissa’s husband Nick is a handsome and well-known actor in his mid-30s and probably in the chiseled George Clooney mode.

Melissa wants to profile Frances and Bobbi for a prestigious magazine, but the end results of what that exposure might provide (respectability and legitimacy) are not the point of Conversations With Friends. Instead, the approximately seven months covered in the novel chart the course of how Frances enters into an adulterous relationship with an older man (Nick), and Bobbi bonds tightly with Melissa. Life lessons may or may not be learned by the end of the story, as little earthquakes are endured, but it’s the journey through them that’s the point to be understood.

The ponderous and at times lumbering nature of this story is really a matter of Rooney’s stylistic conventions, and it can take a while to accept. Rooney seems more inclined to tell, not show, her character’s traits. “I’m gay, said Bobbi, and Frances is a communist.” Melissa sees herself as “a neurotic individualist”, and Nick self-declares as a Marxist who wishes not to be judged for owning a house. Add to this style, which may turn off some readers, is the text’s absence of quotation marks, which can make it difficult to follow without paying absolute attention. This requires extra patience from the reader. Rooney rewards those willing to go the distance with this novel by inserting transcripts of text conversations that work as faux journalism and a great example of a 21st century epistolary literary tradition. These characters would be severely confined by the 142 character limitations of Twitter and the sentence fragment pronouncements of a typical Facebook post (that always seem to be missing a subject.) Here, Frances and her married lover Nick are considering their relationship:

Me: I can’t believe you’re breaking up with me over Instant Messenger… I thought you were going to leave your wife so we could run away together.

Nick: You don’t need to be defensive.

Me: How do you know what I need?

Later, as Frances contemplates the status of her relationship with Bobbi, which had been drifting away the more she prioritized connecting with Nick, she makes this observation:

“It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and the textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.”

This is followed by a collection of Bobbi’s comments, time stamped and official, that can seem annoying and a little too academic if placed in a different context, but it’s in keeping with the audacity of a first-time novelist. Shoot for the stars. The hits may be rare as these attempts soar in the sky at a rapid pace, but their insistence will resonate:

“If you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon and try to understand it as a social phenomenon it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness… and yet it’s also subservient and facilitatory…”

It helps that later in the novel, Rooney adds this wonderful observation about how Frances feels when her friend Bobbi talks:

“Listening to Bobbi theorize in this way was exciting. She spoke in clear, brilliant sentences, like she was making shapes in the air out of glass or water.”

Again, on paper these character monologues can be ponderous, but Rooney makes it work. It’s not just that she is featuring characters her age that she probably knows, she also seems to sincerely like them. They are working through challenges that come when too many words are shuffling for positions of power, when actions are methodical and determined rather than spontaneous and combustible, when the world is best understood if accompanied by a written transcript of actions experienced and scenes witnessed. It can be a frustrating inconsistency with the story, an impediment to this novel’s success, that there aren’t many conventional conversations in this narrative. That may be the point, though, because after all, these characters are working within the context of a cerebral world. They’re actors, journalists, and performers.

While these replications of imagined instant messages and e-mails can be a predictable device for first-time novelists and an easy way to fill word quotas, in confident hands they can be very effective. Such is the case with the long email from Melissa to Frances after learning that the latter has been sleeping with Nick. It’s indicative of Rooney’s style, which can be annoying if not for the fact that the informed reader understands that there are people who think and talk and write like this to each other:

“Are you making my husband better, Frances? What gives you the right to do that? …For Nick, you’re probably indistinguishable from happiness. I don’t doubt that he considers you the great love of his adult life…”

A pivotal turning point in Conversations With Friends comes when Frances’s biggest literary exposure (and financial compensation) comes at the expense of her friendship with Bobbi. It causes an understandable rift, though the biggest issues for Frances are the consequences from her relationship with Nick. Rooney deals sensitively with some major issues here. Frances is a self-mutilator, depressed and desperate but also (and this comes across with humor that was probably intended) aware that this too shall pass and there would be more important considerations to be made about her life many years later:

“Ultimately it didn’t matter that Nick had taken the first opportunity to leave me as soon as Melissa wanted him again… or that my face and body were so ugly it made me sick… That wasn’t what my biographers would care about later.”

There’s a quick, almost breathless style to Conversations With Friends that can sometimes be an impediment to contextualizing where and how it stands as a novel, debut or not. Advanced press material has cited Rooney as noting that she wrote the bulk of this novel in three months, the characters apparently almost fully formed. There isn’t much action or motivation with the plot and characters until probably at least a third of the way through this book. In fact, there really isn’t much of a “plot” per se, just a quartet trying to control where their cerebral natures will take them.

What we have by the end of Conversations With Friends is a story of forgiveness and renewed faith. “The Bible made a lot more sense to me, almost perfect sense, if I pictured Bobbi as the Jesus character. She didn’t deliver his lines entirely straight; often she pronounced them sarcastically, or with a weird distant expression.” That’s what we have to take with Rooney’s heroine, and eventually she earns that personality quirk. What becomes rewarding is that Rooney’s sympathy towards her character is something that we might not share upon first read. She might not have mapped out every movement she wanted them to make, and there are times when want her to move on, but we are sympathetic. Through health problems and trying to handle her distant, alcoholic father, she never stops searching.

“Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts. You live through certain things before you understand them.”

Passages like that, delivered not with brazen aplomb but rather humble enlightenment, makes the reader hope that perhaps this isn’t the last we’ll see of Frances as she navigates what will definitely be (as the older among us can surely cite) tougher times in the future.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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