Unread Messages by Sally Rooney, 2021
The magic trick:
Third-person narration that does not reveal characters’ thoughts or feelings
It being Irish Month on SSMT, let’s do something special this weekend and highlight two stories from the country’s most famous writer of the moment: Sally Rooney.
The first is “Unread Messages,” a very recently published short story that doubles as an excerpt from Rooney’s forthcoming novel. It’s excellent.
My journey with her work started can be drawn through my reactions to the first couple stories of hers I read: Eh, this isn’t half bad… on to the next couple stories of hers I read: I love these stories so much, and I can’t figure out why… now to my recent total surrender: I’m not sure what exactly she’s doing that’s so good, but who cares? She’s the best writer working today, and that’s all there is to it.
But of course this website’s format demands to answer the question of Why is this good?
I don’t know. I never know. I don’t know anything about any of the stories on this website – why they’re good, what the authors are doing, anything at all. Fiction is a magical mystery.
But that’s never stopped me from conjecture before, soooo….
I guess the most remarkable thing about this story is the way the narration almost entirely resists internal dialogue. The third-person voice tells us that Eileen, our protagonist, returns home to her Dublin apartment and that “the layout and interior suggested she was not the sole occupant.”
It’s almost as if it’s simply a camera recording things for us to process.
That’s a fake, of course. The author is still very much editing and guiding the things for our camera to record. But still, it’s an interesting and rare technique.
The reader is very much on its own to sort out what the unread messages are and what this all means.
And that’s quite a trick on Rooney’s part.
In the summer, at a party in their friend Ciara’s apartment, Eileen met a man named Aidan. He had thick dark hair and wore linen trousers and dirty tennis shoes. They ended up sitting in the kitchen together until late that night, talking about childhood. In my family we just don’t discuss things, Aidan said. Everything is below the surface, nothing comes out. Can I refill that for you? Eileen watched him pouring a measure of red wine into her glass. We don’t really talk about things in my family, either, she said. Sometimes I think we try, but we don’t know how. At the end of the night, Eileen and Aidan walked home in the same direction, and he saw her to her apartment door. Take care of yourself, he said when they parted. A few days later, they met for a drink, just the two of them.
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