Contemporary Clothing

Is Sally Rooney a millennial novelist or a 19th-century one?

Jane Austen and Sally Rooney.
Jane Austen and Sally Rooney. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons and Jonny L. Davies.

“She writes characters like cysts,” I said. I was talking about Sally Rooney with my friend. What I meant was she builds people that have tiny pinpricks all over their surfaces, emblems that indicate inner life, and that these pinpricks eventually give way to enormous gobs of thick, gooey, unpleasant, discomfiting personality. This is a murky version of a very familiar understanding of novelistic character: tiny gestures or choices in the story world give proof of a character’s rich interior life. Rooney is being hailed as the first great millennial novelist (she is 28), but she is quick to connect her efforts to earlier writers’ work, not only within the pages of the stories and novels themselves. In a recent New Yorker profile, Rooney drily noted, “A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” The question here, of course, is what she means by the novel, and what she means by contemporary clothing.

Does the novel have a corset? Does it wear a hat? And what is Sally Rooney doing to outfit it in new style? Are her formal vignettes, drawn from text messages and chat windows, jorts? Or a slim cashmere coat, lined with slick silk? I think the image of clothing here is both telling and a little bit wrong: It implies a superficial shift, one done to keep up with fashion, rather than anything more substantial. Of course, a body shaped by a corset looks different from one shaped by jorts, but I think what Rooney does with the novel is perhaps a little more invasive than she here implies. Instead, Rooney’s novels relocate readerly attention, encouraging us to focus on the permeable edges of characters—the soft parts of our bodies that meet other bodies in friendship or romance—and away from their textual surfaces. While Rooney’s characters click through their social media pages and think and talk about all kinds of cultural texts and artifacts, it would be a mistake to think of Rooney’s focus as being the embedded material world that she catalogs. Her attention is on the ways our personalities and our bodies reach out to meet other people in both half-hearted and impassioned ways.

Rooney is, I think, the latest writer in a long history of the English novel that takes as its subject a young woman’s plight. Feminist scholars like Catherine Gallagher, Sandra MacPherson, Patricia A. Matthew, and Stephanie Insley Hershinow have all written on the centrality of untested female experience in the 18th- and 19th-century British novel, and Rooney is in line with this history. A young woman’s development, both sexual and moral, gives a compelling story arc, even if it also encourages a writer to equivocate on the content of those sexual and moral developments. (Does Elizabeth Bennet fall in love with Darcy’s mind, his estate, or his tall and well-made body?) You can draw a shaky but unmistakable line to Rooney from Frances Burney and Jane Austen through George Eliot and the Brontës, to Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen, to Barbara Pym and Rumer Godden. Rooney comfortably joins contemporary iterations (think Zadie Smith, Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley), but there is an element in her novels that grates a bit at this chronology. She is baring her teeth at the group of female writers she closely resembles. Masochistic elements run through her fiction, not exactly as fully fledged fetishes or desires, more as evidence of the baseline structure of heterosexuality: Marianne, in Normal People, like Frances in Conversations With Friends before her, wants men to hit her because women like her—intellectual, writerly, intense—should want men to hit them. There is a bizarre inability in Rooney’s sexual plots to divide one’s desires from one’s aspirations: Who you want to be, in the wider world, painfully tangles with what you want in bed.

The thing that feels most modern in Rooney’s writing is the way her characters’ minds adhere to their bodies. As I was reading Normal People, I noticed my ear itched, and when I scratched at the fleshy knob at the opening of my ear canal—the tragus—I realized there was a bit of dried something on the edge of the skin, some wax, or a piece of skin. I absentmindedly scratched at the residue, and it came away on my fingertip. I still wasn’t sure what it was. I sat there, looking at the little slip of papery tissue and thought: This is just the kind of detail that Rooney embeds in her stories. There’s a casual aspect to her characters’ embodiments. While they encounter momentous bodily experiences—transporting sex, horrifying bleeding—they also seem mundanely fleshed. They absent-mindedly press the membrane of their skin into an uncovered thorn; they scrape the tines of their forks across the surface of a dish of rice. Rooney pays a different kind of attention to her characters’ edges and limits than the 19th-century novelists to whom she is compared. If Henry James and the Brontës used the charged edges of the body to portray desire and need, Rooney presses through those edges into the soft meat inside. It’s not that the 19th-century novel doesn’t have flesh; it’s just that it can be hard to see under all that heavy drapery, under all the social exactitude.

Sally Rooney is doing something new. And, I find her uncomfortably familiar. She writes with a matter-of-factness that feels at once arch and without artifice. For example, here she is in Conversations With Friends describing a momentous shift in feeling: “I was gripped by a sudden and overwhelming urge to say: I love you, Nick. It wasn’t a bad feeling, specifically; it was slightly amusing and crazy, like when you stand up from your chair and suddenly realize how drunk you are.” She balances the precision of Frances’ personal revelation with the comprehension of the emotion’s repeatability. The mad plunge in your stomach when you realize you love someone but have not yet told them is a kind of feeling, not a precise feeling, and not in the least unplumbed in novels. Somehow, though, Rooney makes this feel fresh while at the same time shaping her prose with sentences that seem almost like leftovers from someone else’s novel. In this way, the novelist she most reminds me of is D.H. Lawrence, a writer obsessed with working his way along the gory edge of self that unites the mind and the body. He is quite out of favor now, his sexism, racism, and reedy fascism making his novels hard to read. But I hear a formal chime with Rooney. And, as I do when I read Lawrence, I find myself reading paragraph after paragraph and feeling like I wrote them myself, though I’m also certain I could never write anything so precise, so perfectly, transparently true. Rooney’s is an exacting balance between extraordinary familiarity (not just of character and plot but of sentence rhythm and diction) and maddening precision—you can’t imagine anyone has written such a crisply right sentence about trying on clothes or touching a leg under water. I don’t know how she does it.

It’s easy, when reading Rooney, to focus on the clothing—by which I mean the emails and texts her stories carefully detail, the abbreviated way her characters have of speaking—and identify it as speaking specifically to the internet- and culture-saturated world in which we live. Rooney’s characters are not just minds at work, and her commitment to articulating and examining their embodiments feels fresh and new. But of course, 19th-century novels (Austen aside) also employ cultural matter as a means of developing characters. It’s just that their cultural matter is so distant to us, now, that we gloss over it as meaningless. We experience a little fillip of excitement when we, say, recognize the curled edge of a Steven Gerrard poster or the shock of the Edward Snowden story in Normal People, but we gloss over all the Disraelis and Gladstones that permeate Victorian novels, failing to recognize their significance.

Rooney watches her characters encounter novels, songs, and films with the same gimlet eye she uses to watch them fall in love or worry about their parents. And running through each cultural encounter is a sheepishness at being affected by a piece of art. As Connell in Normal People sheepishly notices:

One night the library started closing just as he reached the passage in Emma where it seems like Mr Knightley is going to marry Harriet, and he had to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation. He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.

How infuriating and how calming it is that literature has this power. It’s irritating that one’s cool exterior can be punctuated by something as comically determined as a marriage plot. But it’s also soothing that if we’re in the hands of an author like Sally Rooney, we can just keep turning pages, and the plot comes out right.