Literary Hub

The Unreality of Coming of Age

Conventional wisdom about dreams says that the more you describe them, the more you’ll remember them. Hence dream journals—not to mention dream-journal-inspired apps. And lucid dreaming, supposedly, isn’t any more complex: the more you pay attention to the twitches of consciousness, the more you end up being able to control them.

Novelist Jesse Ball teaches an entire class on lucid dreams. In ordinary sleepscapes, he explains, object permanence is the first thing to founder. You pick up a book, put it down, and next time you look the title has changed. You can correct this, he says, by reshaping your waking relationship to everyday objects:

“When you’re awake, you can pick up a book—or you could do this when you are walking or when you go through a doorway—and ask yourself, Is this a dream? You have to get into the habit of it. Eventually, when you’re actually asleep, you’ll pick up a book and ask, Is this a dream? and the answer will be yes. And then you can fly around.”

Ball calls these interrogations escape tests. A wonderful phrase, really—a succinct encapsulation of our fickle commitment to reality. We persuade ourselves we’re alive and well—not to mention real—by first convincing ourselves we aren’t dead or dreaming. Pinch me.

This is a tidy process of elimination, which I imagine would appeal to Sally Rooney and the characters in her debut novel, Conversations With Friends, though they’d probably know to call it a disjunctive syllogism. Rooney was once the number one ranked debater in Europe, and her fictional avatars are erudite and scrappy arguers.

But trying to summarize Conversations With Friends belies its existential heft. Frances and Bobbi—college students, best friends, former girlfriends—meet Melissa and Nick, a semi-famous artist couple in their early thirties. Frances starts sleeping with Nick. Everyone mingles at Dublin’s literary functions, languishes in fancy French vacation homes, drinks too much wine and sends a lot of text messages. The affair is revealed, which complicates the tetrad without rupturing it. Melissa sends a nasty, well-crafted email, but makes no ultimatums. Frances keeps sleeping with Nick.

Still, it’s a smart and heady book. Over fashionably late and leisurely meals, someone interrupts a discussion about the police state “to say something about Western value systems and cultural relativism.” Frances and Bobbi wonder how capitalism fuels monogamy: is love an exhaustible commodity? They are constantly specifying whether they mean a word “as such.”

If we use the characters’ own talking points as a guide for reading Conversations With Friends, we might take Frances and Nick’s affair to be an exercise in moral philosophy, or an experiment in sexual politics. What should we make of the conventions that tell us marriage is for two people, break-ups don’t produce best-friends, and thirty-year-olds should steer clear of twenty-year-olds? Do these boundaries hem us in or keep us safe?

These aren’t uninteresting questions. Frances and Bobbi like talking about them, the way they like talking about almost anything contentious. It’s pleasurable to partake in this book as participants of its many Conversations: in well-decorated living rooms and lower-case emails.

The novel is most profound, however, when no one is talking. In the quiet, the expert choreography of conversation dissolves. What remains is the far less graceful movement of a mind on its own, and the even less elegant coordination of that mind and its unruly, inconstant body.

Take Frances alone in the bathroom, where she finds herself one evening gripping the edge of the bathtub, wondering whether she’ll be able to stand up. Frances experiences debilitating periods. The intensity of her body’s rebellion is not just pain—the difficulty of enduring reality—but disbelief, the uncertainty about whether it exists in the first place:

It scared me so badly that the only comforting idea I could think of was: maybe it’s not happening. I kept returning to this thought every time I felt myself starting to panic, as if going insane and hallucinating an alternate reality was less frightening than what was actually going on.

This is a kind of lucid dreaming in reverse. To take control of a dream, you remind yourself of reality. It’s just a dream, we say: a sober scolding to our roving minds. By contrast, to take control of her all too real pain, Frances evokes a fantasy: in this case, it’s just a dream is a wishful plea to her defiant body.

For Frances, the question of identity—the heart, after all, of any coming-of-age novel—hinges on this line between reality and fantasy. Which realm is she more at home in? Is an escape test the balm she needs for life’s unrelenting realness, or a solipsistic nightmare?

Her affair with Nick becomes a reckoning with these questions. Its clandestine phase indulges Frances’s escapist desires and keeps reality at bay. Home alone, she Googles old clips of him in movies, and sends him carefully considered emails.  When she’s actually with Nick, their intimacy no longer mediated by the Internet, Frances is often overwhelmed. She thinks about the emails she’ll send him later, instead of thinking about what to say in his presence. Having sex with him for the first time, she says, “I missed the distance between us.”

When the affair is revealed, it’s much harder to deny that what’s happening is real. Frances is robbed of the omnipotence of the lucid dreamer, who gets to decide what happens to next, and whether to wake up. This ambush by reality makes Frances feel physically exposed: “It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn’t try to stop him.”

Such extreme vulnerability is more palatable as fantasy: when she and Nick have sex without a condom for the first time, Frances writes, “it was so real it was like hallucinating.”

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Frances’s reality founders most when she reckons with her physicality. The exquisite pain of getting her period and the exquisite pleasure of having sex with Nick are, in their simplest (and least glamorous) terms, the sensations of things coming out of her and going into her. How could such extreme permeability—a stark fact of femininity—not be an affront to reality?

Frances’s cramps turn out to be endometriosis, an autoimmune condition characterized by extraordinary menstrual pain and, sometimes, infertility. Frances’s doctor describes her diagnosis as “difficult” and “unpredictable.” The very definition of autoimmunity (a body under its own attack) echoes the rebuke gas-lighters have been lobbing for decades, whether to female hysterics or “difficult” and “unpredictable” girlfriends: Why are you doing this to yourself?

“Which is it: all in her head, or all in her body? If the answer is both, she has no escape.”

It’s a question raised even more starkly in Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, published just a few months before Conversations With Friends. The two books bear uncanny similarities. Both feature over-educated, under-employed, young women with a nearly identical litany of hardship: empty bank accounts, intense and elusive best friends, troubled fathers, autoimmune diseases, unconventional love affairs with older actors.

Lacey’s protagonist, Mary, suffers from a constellation of mysterious, incapacitating symptoms. Without diagnoses, her doctors provide accusations instead: “Just don’t worry so much—try not to think about it. One doctor said, That’s just bodies for you, sighed, and clapped my shoulder, as if we were all in on the joke.” In medical parlance, both of these non-answers may amount to the same thing—there’s nothing we can do—but for Mary herself, who has to keep doing and living regardless, the semantic difference is huge. Which is it: all in her head, or all in her body? If the answer is both, she has no escape. Neither fantasy nor reality offers any respite.

The Answers gets weird. Mary begins a mystical Reike-esque treatment for her pain, and joins a bizarre reality-TV-cum-lab-experiment, in which she is paid to play the part of a celebrity’s girlfriend. If Rooney blurs the line between fantasy and reality, Lacey transgresses it outright: is love “authentic” if it’s generated by artificial electric impulses, administered by tech bros in white coats? Is a medicine working if no one can explain what it does? In short: does it really matter if things are real?

These are big, metaphysical questions but, like in Conversations With Friends, I think they’re most interesting for what they tell us about what it means to grow up—especially, what it means to grow up as a woman. So much of Frances and Mary’s existence—their phones, their flings, their profound pain—conspires to untether them from reality, at precisely the time of life when it’s customary to start invoking “the real world.” This dissonance is profound. “I keep wondering,” Mary says, “what, in me, might be constant. I catch myself looking for that remainder, retracing my steps as if in search of lost key.” Constancy, after all, is our most reliable metric of reality: as Jesse Ball tells us, we know we’re in it if the book doesn’t change when we look away.

For both Frances and Mary, the possibility of physical recovery is perhaps the most compelling case for grounding themselves in reality. The ultrasound that diagnoses Frances’s endometriosis transforms an intangible feeling into a visible, nameable, possibly treatable fact. This, if anything, would seem to be the moment for her to embrace the reality she has kept at bay. The facts are no longer uncertain and threatening: they offer clarity, and, perhaps, relief.

But on the same day she receives her diagnosis, Nick calls Frances he’s started sleeping with his wife again. He tells her he hopes nothing will change between them, because isn’t that what their expansive, unconventional definition of intimacy—a dream itself—has always insisted is possible?

Listening to Nick talk, Frances does something that looks a lot like an escape test: “I lifted the phone away from my face, slowly, and looked at it. It was just an object, it didn’t mean anything.” She may as well be asking: am I dreaming?

Escape tests are supposed to be empowering, a reminder that you live in a concrete world over which you have control. But the mundaneness of Frances’s phone hollows her out. Her phone is an object, and so, of course, is she. There’s no plane of existence in which her relationship with Nick can comfortably exists. Either it’s all a fantasy, and Nick is just a flimsy projection of her desire, or else it’s all too real, and she is just his dispensable pawn.

The same catch-22 applies to her endometriosis. Living with inconclusive pain is a torturous, isolating experience—what’s more lonely than being all in your head?—but so, too, is living with a diagnosable illness and its grim forecast of the future.

Mary faces a paradox of her own. She gets better, but the miracle of being at home in her body doesn’t yield the feeing of continuity she craves. “She felt sure it must have done something visible, changed her in some undeniable way, only she couldn’t get far enough from herself to know what it was.”

Even when we inhabit reality, the vantage points are limited. The kind of objectivity Mary seeks is available only through disassociation; the only way she can think of proving how grounded she has become is, illogically, by seeing herself from a birds-eye view.

In many ways, the questions that Frances and Mary ask are the same ones everyone asks on the brink of adulthood. Which facts should you resign yourself to? Which dreams should you devote yourself to? The liminal state of late adolescence (or at least a certain privileged one) can seem like a kind of lucid dream, a world of boundless potential, in which all you have to do is choose what happens next. It will end whenever you find an answer: which world do you want to wake up in?

If this doesn’t sound fun or easy, it’s probably because it isn’t. You can find Jesse Ball’s instructions for lucid dreaming on the Internet, but you can also find an extensive Reddit thread called: is lucid dreaming scary? It’s a fair question.

“The liminal state of late adolescence (or at least a certain privileged one) can seem like a kind of lucid dream, a world of boundless potential”

It would surely be simpler to preserve a clearer line between waking and dreaming life. To commit ourselves to reality, and let our fantasies—on the occasions we indulge them run away at their own pace. But the truth, as Frances discovers, is that human desire—perhaps especially female desire—insists on blurring this line.

In her notebooks from 1965, Susan Sontag writes:

“What makes fantasy pleasurable


for most people is that, usually, one doesn’t want—really—for the fantasy to come true. (Sex, dreams of glory, etc.) I find fantasies—of love, warmth, sex—unbearably painful because I’m always aware it’s ‘just’ a fantasy. I want—I turn up the wanting—but it isn’t going to happen. I want, too much.” 

Sontag’s insight is echoed in The Answers. When Mary begins to recover, she wonders if she’s really ready to get better—if perhaps she fears health as much as she longs for it. “Isn’t it funny that a person could want something so much she might do everything she could to stop herself from getting it?”

Conversation With Friends is a stunning portrait of what it feels like to “turn up the wanting.” The bearable pleasure and unbearable pain, as Sontag says, of keeping fantasies just out of reach.

The novel ends with Frances picking up her phone. It’s Nick calling, after months of silence, so it seems fair to ask: is this a dream?

And it is, of course. It’s Rooney’s. Because when you want “too much,” there’s a place, as Sontag well knew and Rooney and Lacey have discovered, to put your desires: a book.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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