Ben Smithgall

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Bit pusher at Spotify. Previously Interactive News at the New York Times, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





Conversations with Friends

By Sally Rooney

Finished reading on July 26, 2019

It was a bit of system shock to go from the gargantuan scope of the Mars trilogy to the much smaller Conversations with Friends, which perhaps colored my impressions of the book. I have to say, though, it was sort of difficult to read a first-person story of a character who seems to think exclusively with the tone of someone making fun of something on Twitter. In a profile by the New York Times, Rooney says that this was intentional:

Ms. Rooney even gave her character Frances, in “Conversation With Friends,” a “Twitter voice,” which she described as “a tone of casual self-revelation that deprives others of the ability to criticize.”

The other thing about Conversations with Friends is that all of the characters are a bit, well, too smart:

I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.

This bit in the book follows an observation by Frances of something “real” (in this case, a shirt tag) intruding on something imagined (the play). Baudrillard was a post-structuralist, who argued that symbols have effectively replaced meaning in society and was also a big booster of his own work, which makes this a nice little reference to the author.

A few pages later (Roony doesn’t use quotation marks to denote speakers):

How’s your mother holding up?

Oh it’s migraine season again. We’re all tiptoeing around like fucking Trappist monks. How was the play?

This is exemplary of a wider trend: it seems like Frances and Bobbi are unable to have a conversation without someone saying something smart like this. In comparison to, for example, the Neapolitan Novels, it can just feel a bit overbearing.