With Friends Like These

Ten episodes in, the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends continues to baffle me in ways I don’t remember being baffled by the book, to the point where I wonder whether the book ought to have baffled me more. A basic difficulty I have is in locating the “aboutness” of the story: usually, with character-driven literary fiction, you can identify one or two distinct thematic concerns, the major levers and pulleys moving everything around. In theory that ought to be easy enough to do here also, but I still feel like the proper locus of aboutness is elusive - not straightforwardly absent or suspended, as in Seinfeld’s claim to be a show “about nothing”, but unsettled somehow.

I would have watched something like Conversations with Friends as an adolescent in the hope of obtaining some insight into what it was to be a sexual being, a person with the kinds of urgent and disproportionate feelings that might re-attune their relationship to their surroundings in surprising and significant ways. I mean god help you if you go looking for that and what you actually get is Dennis Potter, but those were the cards I was dealt. There’s been some Twitter discourse lately about whether sex scenes in film and TV are “necessary”, and I think it’s a question worth taking seriously and dwelling on: necessary for what? If you’re trying to tell a story about how sexual feelings and experiences change the very mood and timbre of your relationship to the world, then showing sex can be part of showing what it’s like for that to happen.

In Potter (since we were speaking of him), sex is a gateway to transcendence for men dissatisfied with their lot, but that transcendence is doomed and cursed by the selfishness and obsessiveness of the male sexual imagination. So there’s a characteristic alternation between sumptuous indulgence – a “brilliant breaking of the bank”, etc – and a belabouredly reflexive voyeurism, simultaneously self-accusing and self-exonerating. It would be tiresome if this were the only way it could go. Conversations with Friends depicts unhappy people making each other less unhappy by fucking, then making each other even more unhappy via the imbroglio of status renegotiation their fucking occasions. There is little sense that the temporary happiness depicted radiates out from the locus of satisfaction to reshape, or enable any kind of reimagining of, the world around it. Perhaps this is the cause of my bafflement: I’m looking for one kind of story to be told, and encountering another. Sex simply doesn’t have that kind of symbolic leverage here. The misery-making power of Frances’s endometriosis, which visibly hampers and diminishes her experience of being a body in the world, is both more affectively consequential and less able to be talked about.

I’m not convinced that Conversations with Friends is as much “about” monogamy and non-monogamy as it tries at times to make out. It observes, as Rooney likes to observe, the contemporary conversations around these topics. But these people – this particular collection of characters – would be stupendously miserable as a polycule: non-monogamy isn’t going to resolve the tangle they have got themselves into, although it might have offered patterns of relating and caring for one another that would have made such a tangle less inevitable in the first place. The ability to love, singularly or plurally, is not presented as a panacea; indeed, “love” here often seems to be more a paralysing affliction consequent upon sexual happiness, an emotional invoice for fucking, than a power of attention and agency which might impel you to do something. But there is also a realist bent to Rooney’s handling of the question: the stucknesses and vortices of passivity in her characters’ lives don’t result from a failure to realise or act on their “true feelings”, whatever those might be, but from a sort of nameless and ubiquitous curtailment of agency which threatens to reduce such feelings to a sort of bubble on the surface of things. Her plots are not driven by psychological epiphanies and therapeutic unstickings, but by the accumulation of small acts of agency-building intervention and repair.