When reading Sally Rooney’s novels I wonder whether or not she is doing the same thing as Joanna Hogg or Harmony Korine, wherein something vacuous and / or vulgar is being represented as a comment on societal vulgarity and vacuousness or whether those being represented, whether upper-class English people or lower-class Americans, are intended to be in and of themselves, sympathetic or interesting. The answer is always both, but I think Beautiful World Where Are You represents a turning point in Rooney’s writing career at which the central point is indeed that we find academically high-achieving and precocious people who attended Trinity College Dublin sympathetic and interesting.
There are at least four distinct narrative modes within this novel.
i. mimetic depictions of how characters sit, where they are looking, what’s on their phone screen, how they hang their clothes up or don’t, whether or not they uncoil the cables of phone chargers. These sections are more surface than depth. Nothing is, rather they appear or suggest; there is a constitutive tenativeness at work here, especially in instances in which someone appearing to be nonchalant as a pretense to feeling some other way would be of little or no consequence.
ii. sections in which Eileen and Alice, the two central characters, send emails to one another, discussing relationships, both former and prior, reflect on how they feel, how they appear to themselves, how they appear to others and how others appear to them. Into this come also the novels’ ideas, such as right-wing politics, civilisational collapse and the felt biological need to have babies. The extended treatment of ideas at length represent a difference from previous works; Frances and Bobbi’s intellectual or politics interests in Conversations with Friends were exclusively a function of having scandalous things to say in company.
iv. retrospective exposition. To paraphrase; ‘Eileen’s sister played sports at school’, ‘Alice and Eileen would eat toast together long into the night’, ‘Eileen won all the academic prizes for which she was eligible’. This is only mode in which the reader moves back and forth in time.
Though self-consciousness is common to ii. and iii. and ideas come through in dialogue as well as emails I would not suggest that we are in the territory of free indirect discourse. Instead there is a more or less absolute cordon sanitaire cleaving one from the other. This is not to the works’ benefit, read alone the clunkiness present in ii. is undeniable:
‘My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976 when plastics became the most widespread material in existence. You can actually see the change in process if you look at street photography from before and after 1976. I know we have good reason to be sceptical of aesthetic nostalgia but the fact remains that before the 1970’s people wore durable clothes of wool and cotton, stored drinks in glass bottles, wrapped food produce in paper and filled their houses with sturdy wooden furniture. Now the majority of objects in our visual environment is made of plastic, the ugliest substance on earth. A material which, when dyed does not assume colour but rather exudes colour in an inimitability ugly way. One thing a government could do…is to prohibit the production of every form of plastic not necessary for the maintenance of human life’.
This paragraph and others would prompt me to think that we are firmly in the territory of Korine-Hogg, that the Kantian readings of social relations or human history are intended to transgress against our attention, or, as other critics have suggested, keep those who have showed up for the sex, or didn’t think Marxism was cool a decade ago at arms-length, given that the Anglo-American novel is in something of a golden age in terms of the number of ideas about late capitalism or modernity being ventriloquised, as in autofiction, essay fiction, theory fiction, creative non-fiction, whatever we want to call it. Whatever we might think of these works – and their class biases, originality and elitism have been litigated in many articles and reviews – I think its fair to say that one of their distinguishing features are their success in dovetailing the fictive and non-fictive with a certain amount of formal elegance.
Splitting the boundaries between these distinct modes might have allowed for a greater amount of resolution in both, or pointed a way beyond the relentless struggle within each character’s minds between politics and individuality such that they may not need to be led towards the submission and sacrifice available to them in Catholicism. This turn is interesting to read at a time in which reproductive rights are increasingly a political flashpoint. Lauren Oyler, in a recent article in the London Review of Books, seems to despair of the growth of a counter-cultural Catholicism and though no doubt numerically negligible it’s still not nearly as rare as I would like, particularly in Ireland. The implicit contention in Beautiful World Where Are You that Jesus is a bit Marxist while jettisoning everything that makes the established Catholic Church what it is cursory, and unconvincing. Allowing the emails to speak more to the novel’s matter might also have done for its non-specificity, there is an email that considers the topography of Dublin’s relative freedom from architectural fedual remnants and whether or not this makes its topography more democratic than those on the continent. Even within the context of the novel itself this is a mad thing to say, the scandal of Dublin’s rental market is represented and compared unfavourably to Paris. The apocalypticism of right-wing politics are a frequent touchstone but a reference to a British politician making an offensive statement on Bloody Sunday remains just that.
In each of Rooney’s novels the supposed disagreeableness and fervency of particular characters will comfortably alongside their popularity and brilliance. I look forward to seeing if Rooney will try to introduce a greater amount of friction between these two poles in her future works.