Sally Rooney Addresses Her Critics
This article was published online on August 10, 2021.
In her first two novels, Conversations With Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), the young Irish writer Sally Rooney resurrected the depressive, evacuated style that Ernest Hemingway made his signature. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white,” he famously wrote in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” and in much the same deadpan way, Rooney has Frances, the narrator of her debut, look around a college library and think, “Inside, everything was very brown.” Ridiculous in isolation, Rooney’s line makes sense in context: Frances has just received an email from her lover’s wife, and while she waits for the courage to read it, she tries, unsuccessfully, to distract herself by focusing on her surroundings. At least, that’s what I imagine is going on in Frances’s head. With a writer so chary of detail, the reader rushes to fill in.
Rooney also resembled Hemingway—and Raymond Carver, a renovator of Hemingway’s minimalism whom Rooney has cited as an influence—in her ability to write dialogue that sounds unpremeditated but has a neutron-star density of drama and emotion. Here are Connell and Marianne, the teenage lovers of Normal People, after their first kiss:
All right, he said. What are you laughing for?
You’re acting like you’ve never kissed anyone before.
Well, I haven’t, she said.
Rooney showed mastery of point of view as well. Her control was so fine that she was able to convey Connell’s arousal during a reunion with Marianne by slowing down his perception and amping up its sensuousness: “She’s wearing a white dress with a halter-neck and her skin looks tanned. She’s been hanging washing on the line. The air outside is very still and the laundry hangs there in damp colors, not moving.” Rooney’s respect for the limits and biases of her characters’ minds was strict. Frances, young and unsophisticated, has never tasted a fresh avocado before, fantasizes about seeing her name printed in a magazine “in a serif font with thick stems,” and describes the torso of her first male lover with an almost generic simile: “like a piece of statuary.”
The rigor with which Rooney conformed narrative voice to the shape of her characters’ consciousness won her praise as a portraitist of her Millennial generation—and also left her vulnerable to political critique. Many of her characters are college-age leftists of an idealistic sort and, like tyro intellectuals since the dawn of time, are deadly earnest without altogether knowing what they’re talking about. They are besotted with theory but literally haven’t done the homework. At a performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Frances catches sight of the washing-instruction label on the lead actor’s slip, and the spell of the performance is broken: “I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.” A whole essay could be written about this sentence’s simultaneous knowingness and not-knowingness, but as a snapshot of a young person who knows which names to invoke but not (lucky for her) their actual work, it can’t be bettered. And in fact, Frances’s insight is a good one—whoever thought it up first.
Rooney told interviewers that she, like some of her characters, was a Marxist, and American critics—many of them her Millennial contemporaries—drafted her into the war over tone of voice, ideological purity, and evidentiary standards that has been raging in progressive political circles since at least the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. In The New York Review of Books, Madeleine Schwartz complained that “the politics are mostly gestural” in Rooney’s books, pointing out that her protagonists, far from being rebels, “are all good students.” Becca Rothfeld, writing in The Point, also saw the leftism as fashionable posturing and seemed sorry that Rooney hadn’t more explicitly punctured it. In a follow-up essay in Liberties, Rothfeld went so far as to dismiss Rooney’s fiction as “sanctimony literature”: “full of self-promotion and the airing of performatively righteous opinions.”
I agree that the leftism of Rooney’s characters is shallow, and that their worldview is to a great extent undermined by the novels’ plots. “The whole idea of ‘meritocracy’ or whatever, it’s evil, you know I think that,” Marianne tells Connell, a working-class boy from a single-parent home who, thanks to hard work and native talent, gets into an elite university, where he becomes “rich-adjacent”—the epitome of a meritocrat, in other words (though never, as befits a romantic lead, an entitled one). Frances, meanwhile, is described as a Communist by her sometime girlfriend, Bobbi, but once Frances’s writerly ambition awakens, she expropriates Bobbi’s life story as literary grist, which Bobbi only discovers from a third party, just as the revealing story is about to appear in print. I don’t find that the inconsistency compromises the novels, maybe because I’m what the internet calls an old, who thinks of politics and literature as different endeavors. Plenty of young people do think and talk like Rooney’s characters, and I like reading novels that look at their world from a sympathetic but significant distance.
At least as salient as the nod to radical politics in Rooney’s first two novels was a troubled longing for traditional relationships, which struck many of the same critics as unexamined, if not ill-advised. The union of a strong man and a submissive woman seemed to fascinate Rooney, the way faith in God once fascinated Matthew Arnold: She could no longer bring herself to believe, but she also couldn’t stop mourning the shape and meaning that such a union once gave to life. In the lives of her heroines, the mourning sometimes took the form of masochism. Frances tears open the skin in the crook of an elbow after she learns she hasn’t been made pregnant by her married lover, whom she later asks to hit her. Marianne lets a boyfriend beat her up and lets another lover tie her wrists and tell her she’s worthless, and she, too, ends up asking the love of her life to hit her.
I find I don’t need Rooney to condemn or fully explain here either; a novelist’s role is to notice and explore. It would be unnatural if characters as young as Rooney’s had already worked out what to do with such impulses. Frances tries to soften her urge to punish herself—tries to tame and socialize it—by submitting herself to a partly homemade Christianity, a wider communion that she seems to hope will dilute the guilt she has incurred in romantic couples and triangles. She starts reading the Gospels and, while sitting in church, has a vision of the world, including herself, as created by the work of many different human beings. “Now I see that nothing consists of two people, or even three,” she writes to Bobbi. Toward the end of Normal People, Marianne tries to transcend her masochism by making her choice to surrender to Connell, who has refused to hurt her in bed, a conscious one, and her rationale echoes Frances’s communal vision: “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.” Unfortunately, an impulse to abase oneself isn’t resolved by a recognition that human life is a collaboration. Rooney’s characters never quite work through the conflicts they’ve been acting out.
Rooney seems to have been aware that she left the puzzle uncompleted: Submissive impulses, homemade Christianity, and an ethos of mutual care return in her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. The book takes its title from a poem of Friedrich Schiller’s praising a mythic past when contact with the divine was part of daily life. Like Conversations With Friends, the new book tells the story of two Irish couples. The first consists of Alice Kelleher, a young Dublin novelist who has moved to the west of Ireland after a nervous breakdown in New York, and Felix Brady, a taciturn, hard-drinking warehouse picker she meets through an app. Rooney loans Alice the shape of her own career: Only 29, Alice has become rich and famous for writing two novels that won a lot of attention from the press—“mostly positive at first,” Rooney writes, “and then some negative pieces reacting to the fawning positivity.”
The loan gives Rooney an opportunity to reply to her critics, with whom, it turns out, she agrees that while a novelist may be Marxist, novels rarely are. “The novel works by suppressing the truth of the world,” Alice writes in one of the meditative emails that she and her best friend, whom she’s known since college, exchange over the course of the book; fiction soothes readers into feeling at liberty to care about such trivial matters as “whether people break up or stay together.” The problem is more general than novels, the friend responds, noting that most people, on their deathbeds, keenly aware that time is precious, talk about close personal relationships rather than human justice in the abstract.
The novel’s second couple consists of Eileen Lydon, Alice’s email correspondent, and Eileen’s childhood friend Simon Costigan. Eileen works at a literary magazine and thinks of herself as socially awkward. Simon—five years older and strikingly beautiful—works as a political consultant for high-minded left-wing politicians, is a communicant in the Roman Catholic Church, and has considered joining the priesthood. His father accuses him of having a messiah complex, and no one in the novel much dissents from the diagnosis. The morning after Simon and Eileen renew a romance that started almost a decade earlier, Eileen accompanies him to Mass, where they hold hands, and ideas about religion and morality soon become integrated into the gentle dominance-and-submission games they play in bed. “I think I enjoy being bossed around by you,” she tells him, and he tells her, when she obeys, with a couple of his fingers inside her, that she’s being “good.” Sexual worldliness, a whiff of incense—it’s all very Muriel Spark, except in pastel.
Alice and Felix, meanwhile, seem charged with menace on their first date—she appears capable of mockery and condescension, and he of scorn or even violence. Indeed, he goes on to ghost her, stand her up, ask her for sex while drunk and high, and tell her no one cares about her. Rooney stage-manages the scenes so that Alice retains much of her dignity—at the cost, I think, of Felix’s coherence as a character. The same man, the reader is told, asks which terms for sex acts she prefers in bed. Rooney claims Felix is bisexual, a claim that goes largely unsubstantiated, and makes his outlines even blurrier. I came to think of his bisexuality as a bay leaf that was said to have been added to the soup but hadn’t been.
Chasing her ideas about love, Rooney hasn’t sufficiently incarnated them. Unlike the wayward human beings of her earlier novels, the foursome in Beautiful World seems carefully planned and a little static, like figures in an allegory. Rooney’s efforts to introduce romantic suspense feel added on. I couldn’t manage to believe that Alice and Felix would ever make a couple except briefly and painfully, and I couldn’t see why Eileen and Simon weren’t settled lovers from Chapter 3 onward.
I suspect that many readers will miss the ruthless speed and economy that Rooney displayed in her first two books, but she remains a great talent. Among the considerable pleasures here are her bold variations in perspective. Interspersing the long emails between Alice and Eileen is narration from a third-person omniscient point of view, the first time Rooney has tried this in a novel, and I felt the excitement of watching a serious artist try out a new tool. One of her chapters, for example, begins with a description of Simon’s living room before anyone has entered it and ends with a description of the same room after he and Eileen have gone into his bedroom and closed the door. Elsewhere, Rooney describes Felix’s warehouse-picking in tandem with Alice’s performance of publicity duties, even though the two actions are taking place at a distance from each other. I loved this playfulness.
And then there are the ideas themselves. As the riff about realism and clothing labels in Rooney’s first novel demonstrated, a powerful intellect beats beneath her underdressed prose. Like every thinking person, she has felt driven to come up with new theories about the world during the crises of the past few years, and in the emails between Alice and Eileen, she ruminates on capitalism, the fall of communism, beauty, plastic, minority identities (Eileen seems to be a class-first socialist), the role of art in the Trump era, and the abrupt degradation and collapse of several Mediterranean civilizations during the Late Bronze Age.
The emails come to seem less like chapters in a novel than like installments of a discursive essay. The central question that Eileen and Alice keep returning to is how to make a community out of loving interdependence. Selflessness, in the name of some higher unity, seems necessary. Eileen admires the way congregants at Mass earnestly lift their hearts to the Lord. Alice quotes a sentence of Proust’s suggesting the existence of a single intelligence in the world, which everyone looks at from their own body, the way members of an audience look at a single stage from many different seats.
But structure seems necessary too. The substance that makes up relationships is “soft like sand or water,” Alice writes, and without a vessel to contain it, people can only “pour the water out and let it fall,” leading not to utopia but to waste. Although Alice, like Rooney characters before her, is disenchanted with traditional marriage, “it was at least a way of doing things,” she writes, sounding less Marxist than Burkean. Rooney hints that friendship might be the shapeless vessel needed for a shapeless substance. When Alice and Eileen reunite in person after a separation, Rooney wonders if they glimpse “something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world.”
There’s something a little 18th-century about Beautiful World, with its philosophical tone and its abstractly conceived characters who can’t stop talking about how to reconcile romantic liberty with love’s responsibilities. It reminds me of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, and like that book, it has held my attention more strongly than is easy to explain. In her new novel, Rooney hasn’t quite found the right vessel for her vision, any more than her characters have found the ideal sociopolitical structure for channeling human connectedness. Rooney could have taken the safer route of repeating herself, but she seems to have an Enlightenment idea of the artist’s calling: She experiments.
This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “Sally Rooney Addresses Her Critics.”