September 2021

Arts & Letters

The meanings of production: ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’

By Madeleine Gray

Novelist Sally Rooney returns to the dystopia of contemporary life while reflecting on her own fame

The air of self-congratulation that pervades the very particular microcosm of the internet I call “Literary Twitter” is palpable. On Literary Twitter – of which I must grudgingly admit I am a peripheral member – arts critics and postgrad students and authors compete via humblebrags about how many books they’ve read in lockdown, which writing grants they are honoured to have received (“Some personal news…”) and, perhaps most performatively, which hard-to-get proofs (aka review copies of books sent to literary influencers before publication) they have received. This year, the most desired proof has been Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. To get my copy, I had to badger publicists to the point of indignity and sign a non-disclosure agreement promising my silence until publication.

Which is all to say: for a novel about millennials who like socialism, authored by an avowed Marxist, #BWWAY (to use the publisher’s hashtag, by which the book will inevitably be referred to in impassioned debate) is an extremely hot commodity. Rooney is not unaware of the irony involved in her simultaneous cultural positioning – Marxist and millionaire – and in her latest novel attempts to think through the feelings of disingenuity she experiences as a bestselling author who hates capitalism.

Echoing her debut, Conversations with Friends, BWWAY portrays a four-person romantic entanglement, with its emotional and sexual tensions. Our main characters are Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon, all of whom are in their late twenties to mid thirties. Alice is a successful novelist who has had a mental breakdown and subsequently moved to a small town on the coast of Ireland to “reset”. Felix is a spiky factory-worker with a chip on his shoulder whom Alice meets on Tinder and begins a romance with. Eileen is Alice’s more subdued friend from university (no points for Rooney readers guessing it’s Trinity College Dublin). She lives and works in Dublin as a literary copyeditor and has serious insecurity issues. To complete the square there’s handsome Simon, who is five years older than the others, and who has known (and evidently loved) Eileen since befriending her in her early teens.

The novel begins with a Tinder date. We zoom in on Alice and Felix as they sit at a bar and appraise each other. Rooney’s characters are always concerned with how they are perceived by others, and Rooney is undeniably brilliant at bringing out the tentative defensiveness we play with when trying to be alluring but also trying to insinuate that we don’t care either way. It’s not free, indirect discourse; we don’t get access to Alice’s and Felix’s thoughts. Rather, everything is hinted at with gestures, dialogue, intonation, stutters. It’s vintage Rooney, which might seem a presumptuous thing to say about the third novel of a 30-year-old writer, but will make sense to anyone who has read her previous works. Consider a sample of dialogue from this first scene:

What kind of person do you think I am? she said.

Something in the calm coolness of her look seemed to unsettle him, and he gave a quick, yelping laugh. Well, well, he said. I only met you a few hours ago, I haven’t made up my mind on you yet.

This passage would be equally at home in Conversations with Friends or its follow-up, Normal People, as in any of the many aesthetically flat, sardonically charged debut novels about smart young women struggling to achieve happiness in late capitalism that have been published in the “post-Rooney” era. I’m thinking of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation, Louise Nealon’s Snowflake, Raven Leilani’s Luster and, more locally, Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes, Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing and Diana Reid’s forthcoming Love & Virtue.

Not all of these novels do what Rooney does as well as Rooney does it, while some of them arguably do it better. And this is the thing with Rooney: she is in some ways a victim of her own success. Her first two books were so field-altering that they inflected the style and content of a new generation of novels. Florid prose and elaborate plotting were out, replaced with email dialogue, self-aware barbs and an intense psychological focus on one or at the most two romantic relationships. With BWWAY, even Rooney is “Rooney-esque”.

So, what is different about BWWAY, and what is Rooney trying to say that she has not said before? One major theme in this book is literary fame and its relation to subsequent writing. Does fame preclude genius? Rooney experienced immense success at age 25 – her first novel was subject to a seven-party auction for its publishing rights – and she now finds herself expected to replicate that success with each new book. It can be annoying, sexist and reductive when critics conflate female characters with the female authors who have written them: not all instances of women writing women are autobiographical. That being said, the similarities between the experiences of BWWAY’s novelist character, Alice, and Rooney’s own life, are uncanny.

Writes Rooney: “When they were twenty-four, Alice signed an American book deal for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. She said no one in the publishing industry knew anything about money, and that if they were stupid enough to give it to her, she was avaricious enough to take it.” Alice continues in this vein, gaining fame and speaking with “superficial fluency” at literary events, until she has a mental breakdown. Post-breakdown, she emails Eileen about the catch-22 of her success, attempting to justify the dissatisfaction she feels despite her privileged position:

When I submitted the first book, I just wanted to make enough money to finish the next one. I never advertised myself as a psychologically robust person, capable of withstanding extensive public inquiries into my personality and upbringing … And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing. So why, why, is it done this way?

When Alice resumes her carousel of literary talks after her breakdown, Eileen chastises her for not administering more self-care, and hints that perhaps Alice actually gets off on the fame. Alice chides Eileen in return, pointing out that this cavalcade of media appearances is part of her job: she gives these talks and does these interviews to secure her brand, to sell her books, to secure an income on which she can live. She does not think that in writing her novels she is doing an ethical good, and, indeed, there are many passages in which she bemoans the irrelevancy of the contemporary Euro-American novel and how it “relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth”.

And then, as if Rooney wants to really hit home that she gets it, she gets how little her work matters in the grand scheme of things, she has Alice say, “My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard. For this reason, I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again.”

But Alice does begin to work on another novel, and Rooney has written BWWAY, and she will likely continue to write more books about young, attractive people feeling guilty about their complicity in capitalism while simultaneously wanting very much to be loved and treating the people they love badly. Does she deserve our scorn for doing so? I think not. We cannot blame the symptom and not the cause. Art does not make the times: it is made of the times. At best it can redirect them a bit.

Much has been made of Rooney’s cultural omnipresence; critical think-pieces regularly use her as bait in order to reel in readers for diatribes on white feminism and the cultural saturation of ideologically ambivalent texts. These articles bounce around Literary Twitter like the iconic 2000s DVD logo screensaver. But to what end?

Rooney has instigated a new wave of novels written by women in which female characters philosophise about the cruelly optimistic world they live in – the systems that claim to make their lives better but really make everyone’s lives worse. No, these characters aren’t engaged in heroic bildungsromans in which they change the world, and yes, we should also be reading novels about non-white people who did not study at Trinity College. But Rooney has created a new norm in the publishing industry, one in which novels by women talking about structural disenfranchisement are not only accepted but cool – and a lot of people read them. Rooney’s popularisation of socialism as a dinner-party topic is not enough to democratise the literary industry let alone remake our culture, but it is a start. Describing the dystopia that is ordinary contemporary life has purpose and value.

Rooney’s novels are a gateway drug to political engagement: most readers come for the hot people fucking (her sex scenes are sizzling) and stay for the discursive dismemberment of generational apathy. She really outlined her project with the epigraph at the start of Conversations with Friends, an excerpt from a Frank O’Hara poem: “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.”

The epigraph she chooses for BWWAY evidences her current self-interest. It is a Natalia Ginzburg quote about what a writer might hope to achieve: “… there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn’t matter much to me.”

Is Rooney being too self-effacing? Maybe. But she is also premeditatively assuaging the negative criticism her book will receive, because that’s the inevitable reaction when a young woman writes about young women in the world as it is, and not the world as it should be. In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love. For Sally Rooney, the only beautiful world we can access under capitalism is the one we make when we love each other.

Madeleine Gray

Madeleine Gray is a writer and critic from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The MonthlyThe Saturday Paper, the TLS and The Lifted Brow.

@gray_madeleine_

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