Books

What Sally Rooney’s Detractors Misunderstand About Her Books

With Beautiful World, Where Are You, the novelist shows she’s her own best critic.

Sally Rooney in a bob haircut and a blazer, casting a sideward glance at someone off camera
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Erik Voake/Getty Images for Hulu.

“I find my own work morally and politically worthless,” writes Alice, an Irish novelist and one of the two main characters in Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You?, to the other main character, her best friend, Eileen. “And yet it’s what I do with my life, the only thing I want to do.” Alice, whose recent history resembles Rooney’s own in several aspects, has become famous thanks to her first two books and now hasn’t written a page in two years. She still does a certain amount of publicity work, however, treating this, as she explains to Eileen, as her “job.” For all the press junkets to Paris and Rome, however, she finds it a joyless labor. Alice, like her creator, loathes her celebrity, and the vile double it has spawned, a false version of Alice that some people adore and others detest. “I keep encountering this person, who is myself,” she writes in an email to Eileen, “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 that she is me. Confronting this fact makes me feel I am already dead.”

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But the misery of fame is really just a side-dish for Alice, who’s far more bedeviled by the belief that her vocation—inventing stories about the intimate lives of make-believe people—is unconscionable, as she puts it, “in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species.” The task of the literary novelist, she argues, is to suppress this ugly truth under a facade of high style so that, “we can care once again, as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together—if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything.” Plenty of people feel that novels preoccupied with sex and friendship—the sort of novels Rooney herself writes—are too trivial, and Alice is inclined to agree with them.

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[Read: Unpacking Sally Rooney’s 19th-Century Influences]

Typically, contemporary novelists speak reverently of their form, as if the result were some kind of sacred object, so Alice’s position has a refreshing lack of mummery. But Rooney undermines her character’s point by making her own novels so uncannily enthralling. In summary, her books sound like trifles of no particular interest, but in execution they’re as habit-forming as crack. The plot of Beautiful World, Where Are You, for example, concerns the love lives of Alice—who embarks on a fractious romance with Felix, a warehouse worker she meets on Tinder—and Eileen, dumped by a boyfriend on whom she wasted “half my 20s” and contemplating getting together with a childhood friend, Simon. Alice, who is still recovering from a nervous breakdown she suffered while briefly living in New York, has moved into a big house in the Irish countryside. Eileen survives on a pittance as an editorial assistant at a Dublin literary magazine.

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For the first two-thirds or so of the novel, Rooney alternates between long emails exchanged by the separated friends and third-person scenes from their lives, told mostly in a striking method that restricts itself to the visible surfaces of events, as if the action were reported on by an invisible observer.  She describes what people say and do—Eileen with her phone, tapping on the icon of a social media app and entering her ex-boyfriend’s name, for example—without offering their internal feelings or deliberations. The reader doesn’t know why Felix cancels a date with Alice at the last minute, or ignores increasingly urgent emails from a guy named Damian, or even what his relationship to this guy is. Not, that is, until he explains it to Alice, and then we can’t be sure it’s the whole truth. We can guess from their behavior what’s going on in the character’s minds, but for most of the novel, the only access we get to their thoughts is what they tell each other.

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The emails, by contrast, gravitate toward sweeping intellectual subjects, like Alice’s rants about fame and its corrosive effects on the culture. The contrast between these two modes of telling mirrors Alice’s novel-writing dilemma, which is really the dilemma of both women. Their emails reflect what they feel they ought to be thinking about and responding to: the dire state the world and humanity. But the objective evidence of the third-person chapters testifies that they’re preoccupied with their personal lives. Only late in the book, when the friends are finally united, do the two perspectives knit themselves together.

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[Read: Sally Rooney’s Normal People Excels at the Thing Novels Do Better Than Any Other Art Form]

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Even so, Alice and Eileen’s lofty political thinking is not the sort that lends itself to action beyond the making of sweeping pronouncements. Alice writes to Eileen that “markets preserve nothing, but ingest all aspects of an existing social landscape and excrete them, shorn of meaning and memory, as transactions,” and Eileen writes back, “my theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence.” They complain, as many people in their age cohort do, rather airily about “capitalism.” They discuss the mysterious collapse of Late Bronze Age civilization in the Mediterranean, after which “literacy all but died out and entire writing systems were lost,” erasing exactly the sort of work they have devoted their own lives to. They brood over the story of Linear B, an ancient Greek script thought indecipherable until the 1950s. Alice finds it “unbearable” that what once was meaningful like this could come to mean “nothing, nothing nothing,” but she seems unaware that, as with many ancient writing systems, most of the Linear B texts that survive record transactions. Capitalism!

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A confession: I find the ideological garment-rending and hair-tearing of Rooney’s protagonists endearingly comical. It came as a surprise to me that some critics took, say, the professed “communism” of Frances, the college student and performance poet who narrates Conversations With Friends, seriously and faulted Rooney’s characters’ politics as merely “gestural,” while others argued that the relationships she depicts somehow represent a form of “radical politics.” The contrast between the way these people talk about the world, the performative doom ’n’ glooming so prevalent in social media and casual conversation, and their actual, lived concerns seems the point of Rooney’s fiction. It’s ironic in the original sense of the word, not in the lazy, vernacular sense that Frances means it when she informs her married lover that she’ll only sleep with him “ironically.” There’s what Rooney’s characters say, and then there’s what they do, and in the gap between these two things is where the comic irony of her novels lies, even if Rooney sometimes seems oblivious to it herself. Alice, however, has her own number. “In public I’m always talking about care ethics and the value of human community,” she admits to Eileen, “but in my real life I don’t take on the work of caring for anyone except myself.”

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Meanwhile, the ordinary loneliness of Rooney’s characters can be piercing. Both Alice and Eileen come from damaging families, with the result that prickly Alice finds herself attracted to a shrewd, skeptical man with no interest in her work and Eileen fears that any romantic relationship with Simon will end in a breakup that will cost her one of her few true friends. Their stumbling progress through the minefield of intimacy, related in Rooney’s plain prose and via several exquisitely-rendered sex scenes, has the raw, wincing tenderness of skin under a scab scratched off too soon. That literary characters serve as moral exemplars seems a childish thing to expect, and a foolish one. A novel about characters of impeccably non-gestural Marxist politics sounds both hard to imagine and fairly dull. What I, in my shameless bourgeois complacency, prefer is that the characters in a novel be, as Rooney’s are, eminently human.

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“Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing,” Eileen writes in riposte to Alice’s indictment of her own profession, a defense upon which I cannot improve. “And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? … Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting.”

The cover of the novel, which has large black text on a sky blue background and small S-like cutouts showing illustrations of two women and two men
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