Frances, the narrator of Conversations with Friends, is twenty-one and composes poetry by ‘hitting the return key whenever I wanted’. She spends most of her time with her charismatic ex-girlfriend, Bobbi; Frances has been dumped by Bobbi but is still somewhat in her thrall. The pair strike up a friendship with an older married couple, Melissa and Nick, respectively a successful writer and a ludicrously handsome actor. Though the plot centres on Frances’s tempestuous affair with Nick, the story is as much about the relations between the three women, in particular the younger duo’s conflicted feelings towards Melissa, whom they admire and resent in equal measure.
Sally Rooney’s debut novel explores the collective, socially mediated nature of personal affection – we can’t help but see people through the prism of their interactions with others – and one of its dominant motifs is control. Disparaging her husband as ‘pathologically submissive’, Melissa brags to Frances that although she ‘wouldn’t murder Nick … it’s important for you to know that if I tried, he would absolutely go with it.’ She wonders whether she was drawn to him because he gave her ‘a sense of control that was lacking in childhood’. Feeling uncomfortable at a party, Frances finds solace in the idea of ‘leaving without saying hello to anyone … it felt good to think about it, as if I was in control of my own life again.’
There are occasional glimpses of the outside world – a harbour ‘where the ships implied themselves as concepts behind the fog’ is especially pleasing – but the most striking passages portray the effects of acute psychological stress. A rising panic feels like seeing ‘all the furniture in my room begin to disappear, like a backwards game of Tetris’. During one confrontation, Frances feels ‘the radiant energy of spite fill my body’. Her bouts of low-level self-harm are related matter-of-factly, a sentence or two here and there, usually at the end of a chapter. This deftness is a hallmark of Rooney’s prose, which is expertly paced and navigates the emotional terrain with economical crispness. The scenario is a familiar one in contemporary fiction – a young woman going out into the world, longing ‘to make myself into … someone worthy of praise, worthy of love’ – but it’s rendered here with rare skill and subtlety.
Set in the mid-1990s, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is similarly concerned with the acquisition of cultural capital. ‘The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone,’ declares her narrator. Selin is in her first year of university studying the psychology of language when she falls for Ivan, a laconic Hungarian mathematician. Their conversations abound with amusing linguistic misunderstandings. We watch as she wings it through student life, negotiating reluctant boozing (‘I thought getting “a drink” meant you only had to have one drink’) and dancing (‘I kept wondering why we had to do it, and for how much longer’) and coming to terms with technological change (‘I didn’t understand it was possible to check university email from a computer outside the university’).
Standing as she is at the threshold between youth and maturity, there is a certain verisimilitude in the contrast between Selin’s limited adjectival range – many things are ‘boring’, ‘depressing’ or ‘weird’ – and the acuity of her mind as she engages with the cultural canon. She is underwhelmed by Donizetti (‘The opera went on for a long time. Eventually the two youngest people onstage got married, so we could all go home’) and nonplussed by Stoker (‘I thought it was weird that a mathematician had created such an internally inconsistent world’). She observes that, whereas Disney villains ‘realized they were evil, prided themselves on it’, the bullies at her school lacked that self-awareness and rooted for Dumbo, and the meanest girls likewise identified with Cinderella.
Towards the end of The Idiot, Selin, having spent the summer teaching English in a Hungarian village, looks forward to reading some ‘real, dense English, with lots of sentences back-to-back’. This is presumably a winking lark, given that the preceding three hundred pages are written in a conspicuously curt register redolent of the very language textbooks that feature at various points in the story. A typical passage reads: ‘I was supposed to meet Ralph for dinner. I got to the cafeteria early and stopped at the computer terminal. I had one new email.’ In lesser hands this would be insufferable, but Batuman’s dry humour thrives in this monotone and there is bathetic mirth on almost every page. The Idiot is an affectionate portrait of first love in all its bumbling haplessness, and a playful celebration of the power and limitations of language.
From two novels that brim with the possibilities of youth to one that wallows in the detritus of lives gone awry: Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is an unremittingly bleak story about two unhappy siblings. Helen Moran, who is in her early thirties and works in New York as a carer for what she glibly calls ‘troubled people’, returns to her estranged adoptive parents’ home in Milwaukee because her adoptive brother has taken his own life. She takes it upon herself to investigate the cause of his suicide, seeing retrospective clues in the unlikeliest of details: ‘No one orders vanilla ice cream, except depressed people!’
Helen is deliciously dislikeable in her sarcasm – she refers to her presence in the family home as ‘my supportive beam of light’ – and in her self-absorption that prompts her to lament, while family friends are gathered around on the eve of the funeral, that ‘no one asked me how I was doing or what I had been up to.’ She fleetingly alludes to feelings of intense anger towards her biological mother, the nuns at the Catholic school she attended and society at large, which shunned her on racial grounds (she is of Korean heritage). Crippled by feelings of self-disgust and bodily shame, she fixates over pathogens, cockroaches and bedbugs. ‘Why’, she asks, ‘wouldn’t anyone admit that a life is not a life but a deathward existence?’
Cottrell’s first-person narration is generously littered with italicisations and exclamation marks – and even, occasionally, block capitals – that imbue her pronouncements with a sense of plaintive, almost pantomimic incredulity. The erratic variation of intonations vividly evokes a sense of mania and instability. This is how people talk when they are losing the plot, or have lost the plot, or are just outright lying to you.