Why you should read ‘Mr Salary’ by Sally Rooney


Ella Raw (she/her) makes a case for why Sally Rooney’s lesser-known short story deserves a read

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By Ella Raw

Back in 2017, it is hard to imagine people were rushing out to buy Sally Rooney’s 33 page long, Sunday Times EFG shortlisted short story. Six years later, it is even harder. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect acclaim over a book little known even to fans of Rooney, but that does not mean it is not warranted.

Rooney’s much longer novels are not exactly what one would describe as ‘happy’. All three are cut from the same gut-wrenching cloth – stamp your bingo card when there's a problematic power dynamic, age gap, ‘daddy issues’, dead parent, university, alcoholism, English Literature degree or email correspondence – and Mr Salary is no different. The short story details a pivotal moment in the strange relationship between characters Nathan and Sukie whilst they navigate at least four of the aforementioned bingo calls. Unsurprisingly, Rooney’s prose is to the heart annihilating, funny, frank, cleverly emotional, and most importantly, unequivocally real. There is a sense that the story flows out like a whirring typewriter, unaware it is a story at all.

Narrated in first person, much like Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends, Mr Salary begins where every good, and not at all sad, romance begins: the arrivals lounge at the airport. Sukie, a 24-year-old Irish student in Boston, Massachusetts, is home in Dublin to visit her father with leukaemia. She is picked up by Nathan, a distant family connection through marriage, whom she arranged to live with years prior when her abusive, alcoholic father used up their savings. Nathan is 40 and wealthy, with his own flat and car. He lives alone, and it is evident his tumultuous relationship with Sukie, permeated by intense, unspoken desire, needs a reckoning. Sukie’s narrative vantage point divulges her unfurling obsession with him, and reveals how he unwittingly controls her,

“Eat your food, Sukie, he said” (Rooney, Mr Salary, 15).

Rooney’s narrative skill demonstrates Nathan’s control through form – we only know the narrator’s identity when he allows us to; that is Rooney’s dynamic prose.

The character of Sukie is not unlike Rooney’s other female protagonists, in fact she is rather textbook. A troubled childhood punctuates an exploitative adolescence, culminating into a guarded and reckless adulthood. This is Rooney’s forte, though unlike other writers who may merely include these character ‘quirks’, Rooney fully forms them. Her characters could be friends we know or people walking down the street as they are so taken from real life. With Sukie, her behavioural patterns are a product of her experiences that we learn about in her narration. She is a person who will give into her desires, however wrong or humiliating. Her self-awareness is off-putting and sometimes sad, but lucidly impenetrable,

“Emotionally, I saw myself as a smooth, hard little ball. He couldn’t get purchase on me. I just rolled away” (Rooney, Mr Salary, 17).

She believes she is emotionally untouchable because the consequences of her actions are ineffectual to her decision making. However, those actions happen purely because she is deeply touchable and sensitive – she is no more a moving ball than a 2D square.

Nathan is different: he fears the consequences of his actions and denies his desires to avoid humiliation. Thus, he is aware that the nature of the dynamic between the two rests on him. Despite not giving Sukie what she wants – himself – he primes her with material purchases, lifts and company. Perhaps, Rooney gives him this trait so he does not appear uncaring, but likewise is not the sort of person who takes advantage of someone who is emotionally numb and shadowed by a looming past.

Rooney’s creative lens takes not only from the idea of real people, but also from the world in which we currently live. The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins suggested Rooney’s writing “emanates anxiety about capitalism”, and we can see this both literally and metaphorically. The protagonist’s relationships in her stories embody a class struggle. In Mr Salary, Sukie relies on Nathan financially and emotionally, he is the ‘fat cat’ capitalist to her proletariat worker; he rewards her with money, whilst embodying something unattainable, something she can never have. And much like capitalist society, the proletariat trudge along, lusting after a future that is reserved for a few. Rooney is a Marxist, and in her own words does not “respond to authority well”, the result is that her novels and stories are dimpled with the political climate of Ireland. A year after Mr Salary was published the 2018 Irish Eighth amendment referendum legalised abortion. Rooney was rather vocal about this: for The London Review of Books, she wrote, “I was born in 1991…Twenty-seven years, I can only hope, before the repeal of the Eighth Amendment”. This culmination of a conservative, religious, political climate, paired with Rooney’s own ardent Marxism, creates the contrasting, highly sexed and fervent intimacy Rooney writes. It is a direct reaction to an era where, as Lauren Collins suggests “it is easier to wreck a home than own one”. As the scope for undefined, casual, but intense relationships expand for the new generation, Rooney’s novels are the perfect enabler for this self-inflicted addiction.

Mr Salary is not a romance story. Rooney does not write romance, she writes life. And what is more important to the emerging generation than this strange, immaterial feeling called love? Rooney writes life, and life is obsessed with love. Books like Normal People and Beautiful World Where Are You may often appear sun-wrinkled next to straw hats and sun-cream as casual holiday reads rather than on English Literature degree reading lists; but they are no less important. Whether you have read a Sally Rooney novel before or are curious about delving into her liquid prose and need a taster, then Mr Salary is perfect – and if you do not like it, whatever, it is so small you will not even see it on your shelf.