Updated: Jul 7, 2020
In Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, a brief discussion struggles to find its footing.
There's a scene practically hidden within Sally Rooney's expertly crafted Conversations with Friends, a scene so hastily thrown into the novel, many rarely dwell on it, if, at all. You'd almost have to squint, burrow your nose deeper into the novel, if only to catch it there, yes, right there, lurking by the top corner of the page. The scene in question, you ask? Well, it's this one right here:
Melissa said she didn’t doubt that we were all a part of the problem, but it was difficult to see how exactly, and seemingly impossible to do anything about it without first comprehending that. I said I sometimes felt drawn to disclaiming my ethnicity, as if, though I was obviously white, I wasn’t ‘really’ white, like other white people.
No offense, Bobbi said, but that's honestly very unhelpful.
I’m not offended, I said. I agree.
Conversations with Friends isn't easy to put down, due in part to Rooney's sparse and exacting prose, and for what her writing can do to us. It engages us, engages with us, and once we're in, we are in. There's no going back.
The world which Rooney creates is unpredictable and intriguing. Melissa’s viewpoint intrigues, and despite having a bone to pick with it, there’s varied layers to peel back and dissect to unpack and especially learn from, as is the point with any art. But Rooney is smarter than this, smarter than what reads on the surface as validation-seeking pandering. Despite Bobbi's critique of Frances’s claim, “No offense, but that’s honestly very unhelpful,” to which Frances agrees, one can't help but think if Bobbi’s words were applied to Melissa, it'd effectively counter the social cognizance Rooney appeared to be going for, though unfortunately they aren't.
On the other hand, maybe this was not Rooney's goal at all. Again, there are several ways one could ruminate the group's stirring dialogue. Could this be interpreted also as a reflection, a mirror up to the ways in which white people discuss racism. The vague ways in which they do, where they claim obliviousness and oversight. Acknowledge racism for what it is but then insist their obliviousness in turn rendered them far too inept to tackle said problem at hand, only to promptly call it a day and mull over which veined cheese to pick off their charcuterie board in a multi-roomed Italianate home. Claim, no, exclaim, how they’d done enough “activism” for the day, ultimately calling it a night. It’s easy to doubt, because what it really is, is the unadulterated and purposeful laziness of the privileged.
Back and forth, must we attempt to convince ourselves this is Rooney’s attempt at imitating how white people talk about racism even criticizing and displaying how the nuances of racism can even elude wise and educated white people, and maybe it is, but it’s hard to assume that is the case.
Just prior to Melissa’s bit, Nick comments on a video of police brutality claiming he could no longer stomach finishing the recording due to the graphic nature of it, promptly realizing how “depressing” it was for him to say that. The group’s dialogue contradicts itself, their words look away and do not invite enough uncomfortable and necessary criticism, just as easily as it was for Nick, a white man, to turn an eye to the white police officer’s knee pressed into the back of the black teenage girl. Conversations on racism aren’t cutesy anecdotes white people can so casually discuss without seriously questioning why they can so casually discuss it in this way, because for those of us, racism’s agonizing implications on our livelihoods aren’t depthless chats we can quickly remark on or decide “not to watch.” It’s just that real, it’s just that immediate, and it’s to be called out relentlessly in every and any capacity. Long story short, the socially conscious commentary Rooney was going for contradicted itself by simply not being socially conscious enough, because almost immediately after their talk on race, Frances delves into her relationship with Nick, noticing how the sex between them has become different now. Why have this in the novel, if not to expand on it? What was the point of this hollow exchange which was so heedlessly thrown into the novel, and one which could be interpreted as an appeal to placate white readers who’d come across this scene? Was it for the thoughtless consumption of this specific demographic of readers who’d surely validate themselves by Nick and Melissa and Frances and Bobbi’s flat observations? Yes. Let’s say yes.
In particular, only ever is this level of unconcerned ineptitude only ever accepted within the bounds of racism. Think about it, anywhere else, places such as in the workplace or in educational institutions, constant disregard, would be condemned and inexcusable. Now, think of something as objective and minor as a multiple-choice exam; you answer enough questions incorrectly, you fail the test, as a consequence you receive a failing mark. So, why is it acceptable when white people—especially ones which are supposed to be as cognizant as Melissa, Nick, and Frances—find themselves worthy of praise in providing the bare minimum of simply acknowledging there is a problem? Do we witness a baby crying, acknowledge there clearly is a problem, but not immediately think to find a solution to quell the baby’s screaming? No. We don’t. Though it’s also worth noting white people rarely face consequences for their racism, much less for their passivity of it. Tracking back, the quartet’s discussion is stifled within the confines of their strictly white friend group. So, of course, it appears as though praise is what they seek. It isn’t hard to envision them looking at one another, self-aggrandized by their mutual sentiments, and their typical white person go-to of “racism is bad”. Who else would hold them accountable if not for themselves who barely contain any depth nor first-hand experience on the matter of racism, though granted, Bobbi somewhat speaks up on the issue? And, of course, it isn’t anyone’s job to hold them responsible, but it feels manipulative to say the least, though of course it depends on whose reading. Others would most likely not share that same belief.
In response to Melissa, one could offer a plethora of solutions and resources. First and foremost, research. Numerous texts are available online where information is readily available, for instance Professor Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be Antiracist, Professor Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, or Ebony Elizabeth Thomas's The Dark Fantastic. Another one being, possibly diversifying your friend group rather than the usual fare of peers who look and talk like you. The list goes on, and it’s fairly easy to take those initial first steps. Surely, for Melissa and company it would not cost an arm and a leg to type into Google on their smartphones.
Instead of coming off as an analytical examination, their discussion is underwhelming, thoughtless, floundering, and undeserving of that pat on the back it was so desperately seeking. And one only wishes how Rooney could’ve done more to call it out as such. The refusal to fully lump in Bobbi with her peers is intended. Despite Bobbi’s place as a secondary character, she ended up being the favorite of the bunch. Bobbi managed to provide insightful critique throughout much of the novel, serving at the voice of reason for Frances. Take for instance, Bobbi’s response to Frances in a prior text exchange between the two:
me: but i mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid frances
Bobbi: you have to do more than say you’re anti things.
Her examinations of those around her and as well as her environment, aren’t said to condemn and injure but to bring about a much needed self-reflection of those she interacted with, especially in regards to Frances—whether Frances gained heightened perspective or blindly agreed with Bobbi if only to appease her, it’s hard to know. Additionally, Bobbi’s criticisms of her peers added a subtle depth to her, it showed she cared for those she cared to be acquainted with and hoped for them to become better or more so aware people. Bobbi wasn’t smart for the sake of “being smart” or there to serve as some parody of transparent pseudo-intellectualism, she actually was just that—smart. In truth, Melissa’s inane “I'm-Not-Exactly-Sure-How-I-As-A-White-Person-Perpetuates-Racism” stance could have easily been rebutted by Bobbi’s later comment to Frances:
You underestimate your own power so you don’t have to blame yourself for treating other people badly…
What a powerful line, and frankly an opportunity missed. In Conversations with Friends, all the parts are here, just sometimes, and very rarely, at the wrong place and time.
Lastly, Rooney’s writing is what one can only hope of any writer—to have their reader engage with the story until the very last sentence. And what a last sentence it was.