For Christmas two years ago, my mother bought me a copy of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People (2018). I tried to read it, I really did, but gave up after twenty pages. Looking back now, I can’t remember exactly what it was that turned me off it. I recall saying something along the lines of not liking the dialogue and the way the characters were realised.
Looking back, I think I disliked the social pressure exerted on me to read and admire Sally Rooney. You see, as a student in Trinity College Dublin, the figure of Sally Rooney loomed large.
Access to campus was restricted while a TV adaptation of her book was filmed. Her novels lined the windows of nearby book shops. Rave reviews appeared everywhere you looked online. She was the voice of the Irish millennial.
All of this, rather than encouraging me to embrace her work, raised my hackles and ensured that I would find fault in anything I read by her.
After laying Normal People aside, my girlfriend read it. After finishing it, she expressed the opinion that it was a good read, but nothing special in literary terms. Then she read reviews of it in well-respected publications, and began to experience a cognitive dissonance so severe I worried about her mental health.
“What is it I’m not seeing? Why is everybody praising it so highly? Am I not seeing something here?” she beseeched.
I tried to comfort her. “It’s the world that’s gone mad.” I said, “Your judgement was correct.”
“But everyone is saying it’s great!”
“It’s all just marketing! The whole industry is a sham!”.
Alas, my words offered scant comfort. It wasn’t until she saw some negative reviews in major magazines that she felt consoled.
‘A lot of press attention surrounded the publication,’ says a novelist character in Rooney’s new novel, ‘mostly positive at first, and then some negative pieces reacting to the fawning positivity of the initial coverage.’
For my girlfriend and me, the negativity was a justification. Maybe our generation’s aesthetic sense hadn’t atrophied after all. There was still hope.
“Why do you need other people to say something is bad before you can trust in your own judgement?” I asked.
“Let’s stop talking about this.” she replied.
After my girlfriend’s near loss of sanity, I resolved to maintain a safe distance from Sally Rooney. The best minds I knew assured me that Sally Rooney’s popularity was a product of marketing, and that her writing was nothing special.
A New Assignment
My life went on peacefully, untroubled by the exorcised spirit of Rooney, until two years later an editor challenged me to review Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021).
“I’m afraid to say I’m not a big fan of Sally Rooney”, I said.
“All the better!” he replied, “She will get enough positive reviews as it is. Write what you really think!”
I left the office elated at first, but then an inner contrarian bristled. That’s right, I’m a contrarian even among other contrarians. If asked to criticise a mainstream work, I’m inclined to defend it.
Buying the book in Chapters, I felt immensely self-conscious at the bestsellers shelf. I scanned the shop before taking the blue paperback from the number one slot.
“If anyone I respect asks why I’m buying it”, I thought, “I’ll tell them I’m writing a review.”
Returning home, I sat down on the couch with the novel and a pen and notebook on hand. Upon reading the first page, I found an adjective that felt awkward, and I noted this down. On the next, I found a sentence I didn’t like, and then a character description that annoyed me. I noted these down too. Then I realised I wasn’t reading at all.
I laid aside the notebook and returned to the beginning. Time passed. A few times, I wanted to reach for the notebook, but resisted the impulse, accepting the text for what it was. Slowly, my ego disengaged, and I started to focus on the scenes, the characters, and the structure of the story. The afternoon slipped away.
On the second afternoon, I became even more deeply engaged. I found some of the ideas expressed by characters exciting. I laughed at parts, enjoying the romantic dynamic between different characters. When I wasn’t reading the book, I looked forward to when I would be again.
The pace of the novel appeared to slow in the final third however. By the end, I had lost some of the enthusiasm sparked earlier. I still enjoyed it, but believe it doesn’t amount to a substantive whole.
The novel primarily follows two Irish women in their late twenties/early thirties. Eileen works for a low-paying literary magazine, and is terribly jealous of her friend Alice, who is a successful novelist.
Alice lives in a beautiful house by the sea, has money and time to spare, yet never goes out of her way to visit Eileen. The novel alternates between chapters following Eillen or Alice individually, and chapters composed of email exchanges between the two friends.
The alternating structure is used very artfully. In the narrative sections, the narrator is extremely remote and impersonal: ‘He was wearing a black zip-up, with the zip pulled right up, and occasionally he tucked his chin under the raised collar, evidently cold.’ (p.216)
This is a very roundabout way of telling us a character is cold, but it maintains the sense of the narrator’s detachment. This technique is characteristic of Beautiful World, Where Are You. In the narrative sections, we watch the characters keenly, with an interested gaze, but we’re barred from access to their minds; nor does the narrator offer insights into the characters. Thus, for example:
The waitress from behind the bar had come out to mop down the empty tables with a cloth. The woman named Alice watched her for a few seconds and then looked at the man again. (p. 6)
When Felix saw Alice approaching, he stood up, greeted her, touched her waist, and asked what she would like to drink.” (p. 214)
There’s a clinical coldness to the narrator, but while fulfilling the role of a dispassionate eye, the descriptions of actions remain vague. It lacks, therefore, a truly realist attention to detail.
The rationale for this style seems to receive its most explicit justification around the midpoint, where the narrator says:
Their conversation seemed to have had some effect on them both, but it was impossible to decipher the nature of the effect, its meaning, how it felt to them at that moment, whether it was something shared between them or something about which they felt differently. Perhaps they didn’t know themselves, and these were questions without fixed answers, and the work of making meaning was still going on.(p. 126)
I am bound to ask: if a realist novel doesn’t offer readers insights into their lives then what is its purpose? Are the experiences of Dublin millennials really so profound that they can’t be explained in words?
The coldness in the narrative chapters emphasises the emotional warmth of the email correspondence between Eileen and Alice. The end of chapter five, for example, shows us an Alice aloof and withdrawn in conversation; whereas the next chapter opens with a forthright Alice telling Eileen: ‘Every day I wonder why my life has turned out this way.’
The emails allow floodgates to open kept firmly closed through the narrative chapters. In there, Alice and Eileen share their worries, hopes, and undergraduate analyses of our current predicament.
This is my favourite part of the book by far. Why? Because the opinions expressed by the characters show conspicuous self-awareness on Rooney’s part of her place in contemporary culture, and the role her novels play.
The contemporary novel is irrelevant (pp. 94 – 95); the cult of the author is philosophically groundless and dangerous but is maintained by marketing hacks (p. 55); the oppressor/victim complex in online discourse is more theological than political (p. 74); beauty died in 1976 (p. 75). These are ideas we can agree on, and I am glad to hear them voiced in a mainstream novel.
Beautiful World, Where Are You doesn’t need to be critiqued. It does that for you. At one point, the millenial novelist Alice laments her public image:
I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything. And yet when other people read about her, they believe she is me.(p. 55)
The ruthless self-examination offers Rooney salvation from her cultural sins. No longer do we need to critique her. She is doing it for us.
Now, you could view this cynically in two ways. First, consider Theodor Adorno’s idea that the culture industry actually feeds off its own critics.
Thus Punk came along and rails against Popular music, and then became the new Popular music. In a postmodern turn, the more you look into the myth of Punk, the more produced and insincere it seems.
The Sex Pistols were a punk-look-alike band, a few handpicked chaps that fitted the image of a Punk band, not a real group of rag-tag lads from the street as in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. Nirvana is a similar case. We’re sick of hair metal, let’s make music rock again, and then you’re on the front cover of Rolling Stone. The more you rebel against the industry, the more you’re playing into the angry rocker cliche. There’s no way out.
Top of the Food Chain
So, Sally Rooney’s novel can complain about how banal contemporary novels are, how useless and privileged its author is for spending her life writing such things, and through that self-critique, she secures her position at the top of the millennial novelist hierarchy.
Slavoj Žižek has discussed at length the role played by guilt and self-deprecation in our current discourse, evident in its most extreme form on Twitter.
If we are guilty of all the ills in the world, then we become, paradoxically, important. It all centres around us. Thus, Alice writes of going to a Dublin shop and thinking:
of all the rest of the human population – most of whom live in what you and I would consider abject poverty – who have never seen or entered such a shop. And thus, this is what all their work sustains! This lifestyle, for people like us! (p. 17)
She is highlighting her sense of guilt, and therefore her virtue, but it also reveals an arrogance. We are at the very top; we must be generous; we must be humble; we must be self-deprecating. Why? Because we are important.
Žižek refers to a marketing ploy used by Starbucks to sell their coffee The chain acknowledges it is more expensive than competitors, but every 10 cent goes to starving children in a far off country.
Therefore, to assuage your guilt about commodifying the planet to the detriment of the developing world, simply buy this particular commodity.
Likewise, if you feel defeated by the state of the contemporary novel, read a contemporary novel that complains about this too. It may be banal, but at least it will be ‘relatable’, and can we ask for anything more?
This is really the key issue. Rooney can articulate what is wrong with the contemporary novel, but can’t seem to write any differently for all that self-critique. The same dross is dished out, but now it’s served with a side of cringing humility.
The aperitif of self-criticism may eliminate the lingering dull flavours, but I’d rather have eaten some good food in the first place.
I was pleasantly surprised by the self-awareness exhibited in this novel, especially evident in the emails sent between Eileen and Alice, articulating how I feel about the contemporary novel and the cult of Rooney in a way better than I could myself.
These critiques are, however, ultimately unsatisfying, because they undermine rather than justify the narrative sections.
They don’t spur Rooney on to write superior work, or even anything different. Instead, they simply undermine the banality of the narrative in a possibly insidious way.
Why insidious? Because the critique of the mainstream fitting seamlessly into the mainstream really illustrates the failure of the critique to have any effect on the status quo. It becomes a pose, emotional venting that doesn’t amount to anything; failing to point to anywhere better, or just different.
Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You was published by Faber & Faber (London) on September 7th.
All Images (c) Frank Armstrong