Sally Rooney’s Fiction for End Times

Sally Rooney’s Fiction for End Times

Shock of the Old

Sally Rooney’s fiction for end times.


Art isn’t meant to be one-size-fits-all, and a book’s popularity is always less about its worthiness than its marketing budget. We all know this. But the problem—particularly for Sally Rooney, whose two novels and two TV deals have sent critics scrambling to theorize her success—is that hype is easily mistaken for claims to preeminence or universality. Which leads people to blame the hyped novelist, rather than the hype itself, for not living up to their highly personal tastes or expectations.

Like all popular books, Rooney’s novels have been critiqued through the lens of their author’s various public identities. She has been called both “representatively millennial” and “not really engaging with any of the social issues that might make her truly relevant to the millennial moment.” Her works are “an essentially confessional account of female consciousness,” but she is also “hardly that feminist writer we can rally around.” She’s been lauded for understanding “a kind of enduring, hard-bitten Irishness,” a nationality that supposedly “insulates her from the social and cultural conversation going on in [America],” even though Rooney, who has a master’s degree in American literature and an Internet connection, says she doesn’t “really have a sense of Irishness, or what that means.” The Guardian suggests that the Marxism of Rooney’s characters is there to signal their elite background. The Atlantic calls the novel’s politics “ambient rather than explicit,” while Slate considers them not only explicit but satirical. (Rooney herself has said, “I don’t know what it means to write a Marxist novel.”)

Worst of all, Rooney has suffered the misfortune of being dubbed “the First Great Millennial Author” in The New York Times, a title that’s not only impossible to live up to but invites invidious scrutiny, making the author accountable for the bluster of critics and publicists. It’s fine to argue about how Marxist, feminist, Irish, millennial, or “great” a book is, but when most of the writing about it consists of squabbling over how much and what sort of relevant subject matter it contains, we are doing hype criticism, not book criticism.

With all of this in mind, Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, feels at times like an attempt to reassert the author’s authority. The basic setup will be familiar to readers of Normal People and Conversations With Friends: Set in the summer of 2019 and onward, the book follows two twentysomething literary Irish women, Alice and Eileen, who share an intimate but unequal friendship, date unreliable men, and deliver mini-lectures in the understated tones of millennial miserabilism. Though the women are physically separated for most of the novel, their stories run parallel: Alice convalesces from a nervous breakdown after the succès fou of her two novels; Eileen, an editorial assistant at a literary magazine, is on the rebound from a breakup. On Tinder, Alice meets the roguish Felix, a warehouse worker who likes to neg her, and Eileen pursues her childhood crush, Simon, an earnestly Catholic left-wing policy adviser with a girlfriend. The chapters alternate between Alice and Eileen’s letters to each other and their dealings with men, and they provide the same mix of hot-and-cold romance and intellectual shadowboxing as do Rooney’s first two novels.

But what’s new in Beautiful World, Where Are You is a heightened self-awareness, conveyed mainly through Alice and Eileen’s correspondence. Having thoroughly metabolized the likely reception of a Sally Rooney novel, Beautiful World seems eager to sucker-punch its critics by clarifying its own viewpoints beyond all doubt. Through her characters, Rooney strides into the arena in full debate-champ regalia, penning mini-essays about identity politics, extractive capitalism, Catholicism, climate change, theories of sexuality, Manet’s portraits of Berthe Morisot, and Late Bronze Age collapse.

Both protagonists also deliver bleak takes on the contemporary novel and publishing world. The depressive Alice maligns her own popular books, considering them “morally and politically worthless,” even though writing is “the only thing I want to do.” The equally depressive Eileen, who feels overshadowed by Alice’s success, argues that “the contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions) irrelevant.” Nonetheless, Alice tells Eileen—and anyone else who might happen to be listening—that readers who project authors onto their books or characters are “quite literally insane”: “what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing.”

Rooney’s strategy of autofiction-baiting is counterintuitive—pulling aside the curtain only to insist we pay no attention to the author behind it. But the point is well taken. It’s wrong to base criticism on fragments of an author’s public persona; books should be judged by the terms they set for themselves.

So what are the terms of Beautiful World, Where Are You? Rooney has called her first novel “conventional in its structure, even though its prose style and the themes it explores and the politics that underpin it, maybe, are on the experimental side.” But this book’s themes and politics turn out to be surprisingly trad-cath, as its characters indulge in a nostalgia that is sheepish but heartfelt. The title, borrowed from a 1788 Friedrich Schiller poem, gestures at the underlying theme of beauty’s scarcity in the modern world, and the book’s implicit answer to this question is: in the bygone past.

“My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence,” Eileen laments, while Alice believes the beauty instinct died out “when the Berlin Wall came down.” They long for the reassuring stability of some halcyon age before capitalism. As Eileen writes:

It is hard in these circumstances not to feel that modern living compares poorly with the old ways of life, which have come to represent something more substantial, more connected to the essence of the human condition. This nostalgic impulse is of course extremely powerful, and has recently been harnessed to great effect by reactionary and fascist political movements, but I’m not convinced that this means the impulse itself is intrinsically fascistic. I think it makes sense that people are looking back wistfully to a time before the natural world started dying, before our shared cultural forms degraded into mass marketing and before our cities and towns became anonymous employment hubs.

Even with the caveat that “we have good reason to be skeptical of aesthetic nostalgia,” the protagonists’ desire to embrace tradition is tempered only slightly by the awareness that this position is at odds with their politics. But their avowed atheism doesn’t stop them from making doe eyes at God hypothetically: “If I believed in God,” Eileen writes, “I wouldn’t want to prostrate myself before him and ask for forgiveness. I would just want to thank him every day, for everything.” And Alice: “When it comes to putting something at the center of life, God strikes me as a good option—better at least than making up stories about people who don’t exist.”

Just as it flirts with nostalgia, Beautiful World also reserves ductfuls of bile for what it considers to be signs of present-day degeneracy. The two protagonists agree that “civilization is presently in its decadent declining phase, and that lurid ugliness is the predominant visual feature of modern life”—and that’s not just the plastics. Eileen denounces the beauty industry as “responsible for some of the worst ugliness we see around us in our visual environment, and the worst, most false aesthetic ideal, which is the ideal of consumerism,” and she considers vulgar the desire to look attractive: “to confuse these basically auto-erotic or status-driven impulses with real aesthetic experience seems to me an extremely serious mistake for anyone who cares about culture.” Never mind Eileen’s casual banishment of fashion, drag, and makeup from the realm of culture; more revealing is her presumption of a stable consensus around what constitutes “real” aesthetic experience.

Eileen also expresses broad skepticism concerning various forms of progress:

What if the meaning of life on earth is not eternal progress toward some unspecified goal—the engineering and production of more and more powerful technologies, the development of more and more complex and abstruse cultural forms? What if these things just rise and recede naturally, like tides, while the meaning of life remains the same always—just to live and be with other people?

Meanwhile Alice, a “widely despised celebrity novelist” by her own reckoning, wonders “whether celebrity culture has sort of metastasized to fill the emptiness left by religion. A sort of malignant growth where the sacred used to be.”

Even values that the two women themselves hold are rendered suspect by any hint of novelty. Lest her Marxism be mistaken for post-Occupy millennial bandwagoning, Eileen insists at a party, “When I first started going around talking about Marxism, people laughed at me. Now it’s everyone’s thing. And to all these new people trying to make communism cool, I would just like to say, welcome aboard, comrades. No hard feelings.” At the same time, she sees the viability of acting on her politics as yet another beautiful thing of the past: “If serious political action is still possible, which I think at this point is an open question, maybe it won’t involve people like us—in fact I think it almost certainly won’t.”

So rather than represent a generational vanguard, this book is straightforwardly rearguard, not just in structure but in worldview: averse to pop, bibliophilic, Old Left, and proudly dowdy, placing at its emotional center the virtues of family, monogamy, and just a tiny bit of God. Any critic keen to describe Rooney’s appeal as a function of her youth is in for a shock of the old.

This dwelling on the past comes in spite of the fact that—spoilers incoming—the book’s ending gets as close to the present as a novel can get. Its final section, set during the Covid-19 lockdown, finds the protagonists contentedly partnered and well-off. Alice, still a dour millionaire, has downgraded her atheism to agnosticism and is working on her next novel, despite her earlier doubts about the worth of writing. Eileen is happily pregnant and “financially secure,” with “a supportive partner who loves me”; her main concern now is weighing the merits of “buying a house and having children with a boy I grew up with.”

The pandemic might have been the ideal occasion for Rooney to show how her characters’ abstract ideals are tested when history comes knocking, but it turns out to be only a worrisome augur of things to come, not something that affects them severely. “The difference between lockdown and normal life is (depressingly?) minimal,” Alice writes, before a page-long rant about her fame and publicity. You could say that the choice to underscore their happy insularity is the point, given that Rooney has elsewhere addressed her frustrations with how “so often the female protagonist who subverts the confines of the nineteenth-century bourgeois novel just dies at the end because she’s too dangerous.” Beautiful World obviates this problem by not subverting its confines at all, being complacent in literal confinement.

Intentional or not, I think it’s a missed opportunity. Rather than grapple with the tension between their reactionary aesthetics and revolutionary politics, the characters cop out, drop out, and opt to cultivate their own gardens, literally: Felix gets into gardening. It’s not that seeing these privileged characters weather Covid peacefully is implausible or unsatisfying, though it does feel somewhat unearned, given that the book’s plot consists of a few minor rough patches in their various relationships. The real issue is that it’s framed, chillingly, as a happy ending. (We know this because at the end Eileen writes, “I’m very happy,” while Alice feels “wonderfully and almost frighteningly lucky.”) “The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel,” Alice contends earlier in the book, “is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth.” Yet Beautiful World doesn’t resist or challenge this notion but rather capitulates to it, offering the comforts of a more beautiful age that it knows never existed.

But hold on. Have I committed the same old mistake, by assuming the book ever intended to supply answers or feature likable, unprivileged, morally exemplary characters? About Normal People, Rooney has said, “It’s not like it’s my guidebook on how to be a Marxist. It is a novel. It’s not really didactic in any way.” Maybe no novel is obligated to resolve any of the moral dilemmas it poses, much less justify wholesale the writing of literature during a time of crisis. (I mean, look at me—I’m writing a book review.) Of a piece with Beautiful World’s traditionalism is its defense of art for art’s sake, its insistence that beauty is what redeems art’s uselessness. So instead of asking whether the characters believe the right things or live the right way, let’s consider the quality of the writing.

Earlier reviews offered acclaim for Rooney’s style, calling it “self-evidently spellbinding and new”; they identified “something on the craft level, the line level, that turns these boilerplate romantic stories into compelling works of art.” Most praised her style’s simplicity and precision (“concise,” “lucid and exacting,” “even-toned,” “muted”) or the way it embodied a tech-savvy zeitgeist. Rooney “captures meticulously the way a generation raised on social data thinks and talks,” wrote one reviewer, while others detected a “ring of native digital literacy,” with paragraphs “built for the Instagram age.”

I also used to think Rooney’s prose was clean and errorless; it turns out I didn’t read closely enough. When you slow down to study the sentences, the first thing you’ll notice everywhere are intensifiers and down-toners: those kludgy modifiers used to compensate for inexact word choice. Not that bean-counting alone is any way to evaluate literature, but just to convey the extent of the problem here, the words “very” and “really” appear a combined 238 times over 353 pages, while “kind of,” “a little,” “a bit,” and “almost” show up a combined 292 times. Sometimes they appear twice in the same sentence (“I dread to imagine what kind of faces I was making, in my efforts to seem like the kind of person who regularly interacts with others”), or in consecutive sentences:

You left kind of abruptly, he said. I was looking for you.

You couldn’t have been looking for very long, she said. It’s an extremely small house.

He gave a kind of puzzled smile. No, well, you hadn’t been gone for very long, he said.

Note how “kind of” appears in both the dialogue and the distant narration; the same habits crop up in Alice and Eileen’s letters, which means that the tic belongs to the author as much as any particular character.

Then there’s the abuse of stock gestures, those little tells meant to indicate how a character is feeling. Everyone is constantly described as looking at or looking away from each other, pausing or saying nothing, usually for a moment or a few seconds. Laughs and smiles appear 253 times, accompanied by generic adjectives like “wry,” “shy,” “sheepish,” “conspiratorial.” Of the 63 instances in which we are told someone nods, 27 of them helpfully specify that the character nodded her head. Entire passages are stitched together from these gestures: “She lowered her gaze then. Maybe that’s because you don’t know me very well, she said. He gave an offhanded laugh. She said nothing. He went on watching her back for a few seconds longer.”

Many of these lapses are side effects of the distant narration. Unlike Rooney’s two earlier novels, the narrator in Beautiful World has no direct access to the characters’ thoughts and perceptions. This opacity is fine for writers with the theatrical talent of conveying their characters’ moods through dialogue and action alone; for Rooney, whose earlier novels tended to articulate feelings and opinions directly, it’s a liability. The narrator is forced to cheat by guessing at what’s going through the characters’ heads, making the tone not just generic but wishy-washy: “He appeared to give this some thought, or perhaps made a show of doing so.”

These and other blunders become predictable to the point of accidental comedy, such as when the word “very” appears four times in the epigraph. You could argue that in real life, people do laugh or fall silent or begin sentences with “Well,” but I’d say plausibility is a low bar for fiction, and definitely not worth the monotonous repetition.

Based on how often the characters look at their shoes, phones, or mirrors, it’d be easy to take some cheap shot at the putative narcissism, social withdrawal, or tech addiction of millennials. My point is simply that this book shouldn’t contain all of the following lines:

She dropped her gaze into her lap

She dropped her gaze to the ground

Simon dropped his gaze down to his feet

Alice looked at Felix, who was gazing down at his feet

She lowered her gaze

she lowered her eyes

he smiled and lowered his eyes

she said nothing, and stared down at her feet

Alice stared down at her lap

Alice stared across the table

Eileen stared at the screen for a while

For a few seconds Eileen stared down at the screen of her phone

she glanced up and smiled politely before returning her attention to the screen

she glanced at him once more

He glanced over his shoulder once more at the exit

She glanced back once over her shoulder

Felix glanced at her over his shoulder

Alice looked struck by this, and glanced back over her shoulder

He glanced at himself in the mirror

he glanced at his own reflection in the mirror

Felix glanced at them in the rear-view mirror

Felix glanced at her in the mirror

[she] glanced quickly in the dim, blotchy mirror

She was staring wanly into the mirror

His eyes travelling over the slim figure in the mirror

Simon met his eyes in the mirror

Eileen met Felix’s eyes in the mirror

Their eyes met in the mirror

Their eyes met

their eyes met

their eyes met

Exhausting, though not exhaustive—a full catalog of every time someone glances or looks or falls silent would be, no joke, at least 10 times longer.

I still grant that some readers might not mind the muddled politics or stylistic infelicities; as I said, I overlooked the latter myself in the first two books. The New Yorker once defended Rooney’s prose by arguing that the “quality of thought eliminates the need for pen-twirling rhetorical flourishes.” And it’s true that Rooney’s arguments are often thoughtful and her characters sturdy, even when the craft isn’t.

Maybe if you believe it’s too late for politics and unconscionable to spend too much time worrying about style on a dying planet, old-fashioned love stories with insightful protagonists and happy endings are good enough. But for a novel that condemns the dearth of beauty and taste in modern culture with such magisterial disappointment, it’s fair to ask whether it lives up to its own standards. What is ugly about plastic, after all, is that it is flimsy, prefab, and as long-lasting as it is popular.

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