Notes on Conversations With Friends after Donald Barthelme’s Concerning The Bodyguard

Was the reader taken aback by his emotional response to Conversations With Friends? Why was the reader so taken aback? Was it because he wasn’t expecting to fully inhabit Frances, the book’s protagonist? Especially given the first person point-of-view throughout? And was that because she is a twenty-one year old woman and he is a fifty-six year old man?

Instead, was the reader moved beyond words?

Why is that?

Did he underestimate Sally Rooney’s capability of drawing in the unlikeliest of readers to a level of empathy he has rarely felt in literature? Or did he underestimate his own capabilities of empathy, of closeness; perhaps his need?

Did the reader, when he got over the shock of the ending, want to turn the pages back to one and begin again? Like that time he finished All We Shall Know in a hotel in Killarney, looking out on a dusky lake and grey mountains.

Did he feel a pang of jealousy that he didn’t write such a book, that perhaps he never could, like when he put down H is For Hawk and Anything is Possible? Did Rooney’s abilities to absent herself so completely form the page remind him of Elizabeth Strout’s? While at the same time putting so much of themselves into the protagonist? And how is that done, how is it possible?

Does it have to do with tension? Or vulnerability, perhaps? Is that what ticks the reader’s boxes, when push comes to shove? Does he see himself in that vulnerability? Was he taken back by Frances to when he was twenty-one and brimmed with the certainties that young people have not yet learned to distrust? And with the certainties, the doubts?

But isn’t Frances braver, while at the same time being more unsure? And doesn’t that make her the greater protagonist? And isn’t the word protagonist from the Greek word: agōn, meaning struggle? Didn’t the book pull the reader in so fully that her struggle was his? And her agony (from the Greek word agōn) was his?

Is the reader sorry that the book isn’t called Frances? Wouldn’t that have reflected its intensity more completely? Did the Faber people think that describing the book as a ménage-à-quatre would entice the reader in moreso than what the book actually is: a ménage-à-une?

Isn’t the book really about Frances’ multiple struggles and needs: the need to love Nick and for him to love her; to love or even find a lost father; the need for a mother’s approval; to be loved and admired by Bobbi and to love her in return; the need for health, and not to be poor, and to find a place of comfort and safety in the world where she can be open and free and live her life on her terms?

Isn’t the word ‘affair’ reductive too? Did the reader notice that Sally Rooney in a recent interview didn’t use that word, that she spoke about a relationship? And love? Isn’t the book about love and shouldn’t that be the blurb at the back? This is a book about love, read it.

When the back blurb (thankfully the reader doesn’t pay them much attention) said that the book could be read as a romantic comedy, was it taking the piss, or what? Isn’t that a lesson for the reader, too, when considering his own work?

Is the level and pitch of emotion precisely right in Conversations With Friends? And the tension, as it rose and fell, and rose and fell? And rose, at the end? After the end, did the reader envision a map of Dublin with two dots, two people, hurtling their way through streets, as in a movie? Could the reader feel the coming together of their bodies, mouths hands hips, on some Dublin side street, after the last page, like a physical impact unmuffled by layers of clothes?

Was the description of Frances’ and Nick’s meeting with her mother on the quays a thing of great beauty? When Sally Rooney wrote: ‘… she told me she would see me next morning, and we parted. It was the first of November. Lights sparkled on the river and buses ran past like boxes of light, carrying faces in the windows.’

Did it take the reader’s breath from out of his mouth? Literally? And in that taking, did he become aware of all the other darlings that Rooney no doubt (or her editor) had slain in the workings and reworkings of the book? While at the same time realising the rightness of leaving this one in? At Frances’ moment of greatest joy and approbation and the high-point of her life? Even as the author foreshadowed her distress in the troughs to come, when she gets her diagnosis and loses the man she loves? Was the diagnosis cruel or gratuitous? Or was it just an affirmation that if the gift of life is joy, there is joy, while if life is a thing of grief, there is grief?

And when the reader himself walked from Dame Street down to the quays and looked at passing buses, last weekend, did he not see boxes of light, carrying faces in the windows? And will he always see buses at night thus? Is he grateful to Sally Rooney for that, too?

Does the reader imagine Sally Rooney returning to Frances at the age of thirty-one? And forty-one and sixty-one? Does he imagine a forty-year account of the struggles of Frances? As she, perhaps at thirty-one has drifted in and out of a marriage to a man grown cold, who cannot fulfil her needs? As she, at forty-one, reunites with Bobbi and nurses her through chemo and a pitiful death? As she, at sixty-one, finds love again and ease with a younger woman, who reminds her of Bobbi, perhaps?

And did the reader then realise, with shock, that if Sally Rooney did set forth on such a great literary adventure that the reader, in forty years may be too old or too dead to see its completion? But if the reader ever did meet Sally Rooney, would he ask her to undertake the trip, anyway? And to entitle the book, The Frances Quartet, and not The Dublin Quartet? Or anything to do with conversations? And would he also simply say: ‘Thanks. Thank you for Frances’?

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