In the hands of a novelist, as in real life, technology is what you make of it. It’s hard to sell “real lol” as a brutally moving and revealing line, but Rooney does, ending a grueling text exchange between Eileen and her sister.
The people of Rooney reflect their time and background – like most compelling characters – and it is true that some of their qualities will be confusing to those north of 40. One of these qualities is a generalized concern more serious and incessant than any radicalism in living memory. . They can’t walk into a convenience store without thinking of “the culmination of all the work in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on the coffee and sugar cane plantations.”
Rooney is very serious herself, but she has a knack for complicating it – even making fun of it – in her job. In one scene, as the group is about to walk into a party to meet Felix’s friends, he turns to everyone and says, “Now be normal, okay? Don’t go in there to talk, like, “world politics” and stuff like that. “People will think you are monsters.”
In his three novels, Rooney writes directly, convincingly, warmly about sex. These scenes come with such well-timed frequency that “eroticism” doesn’t seem like an unfair subcategory for the books. Much of the power of these scenes – and the most telling – stems from their risky nature. Passionate intellectuals in their twenties discussing their upset feelings for each other is a mostly pothole road. Rooney avoids almost all of them. The fact that its characters speak and feel what they do while rarely embarrassing the reader for them is an achievement. It’s an uncomfortable line to the toes, but Rooney succeeds by standing so close to her.
In the 1997 essay “The End of the Romance Novel,” Vivian Gornick convincingly argued that love as a theme no longer has the capacity to underpin fiction. This was, in part, because there were fewer complications, not as many obstacles for people to love (or stop loving) yet and who they wanted. But for Rooney’s characters, it’s the complication. They live in the rubble of conventions of love and much more. Referring to an article she read on the late Bronze Age, Eileen wonders if the world is not on the brink of a “general systems collapse” again.
“Traditional marriage was clearly not suited to its purpose,” Alice wrote to Eileen, “but at least it was an effort for something, and not just a sad barren lock on the possibility of life. Alice and company don’t feel like there is something they need to be where should make romance, which makes their matings even more difficult to decide or to achieve with satisfaction. And that makes them surprisingly moving.