Sally Rooney’s emergence in recent years as the avatar of literary success and its online scapegoat is not unrelated to the content of her novels. Normal People begins with its protagonists, Marianne and Connell, comparing their grades at secondary school and ends with Connell getting onto a graduate creative writing programme. In the first pages of Conversations with Friends, the performance poets Frances and Bobbi charm an older writer, Melissa, who promises to write a profile of them. Still undergraduates, they have already boarded the train of lit-biz publicity. Melissa introduces Frances to Valerie, a woman with money and publishing connections, who solicits a short story from her and passes it on to a literary magazine. The story gets published and Frances gets €800 – not bad for a manuscript written in a single sitting and submitted uncorrected. Connell has similar luck with his first submission to a campus magazine. He saves two copies of the issue, stowing one under his childhood bed.
These pictures of literary ascendance are presented as frictionless, almost involuntary. They are subplots, minor events set beside the young writers’ tumultuous, if somewhat bland, romantic travails and other difficulties (depression, self-harm, social ostracism, fainting spells, being broke, bad dads). Yet they affect the central storylines. Connell’s acceptance to NYU occasions a break with Marianne, who says, ‘I’m sure you could get funding’; Frances’s use of material from Bobbi’s life leads to a feud, with Bobbi tearing the pages in half and moving out of their flat, though she admits: ‘It’s actually a good story.’ Sentiment comes second to writing, and to getting paid for writing. And since love in these books resolves into amicable polyamory or see-you-next-summer maybeness, it is incipient careerism that constitutes the actual vectors of progress and fulfilment.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is set in the aftermath of a blockbuster success that sounds not unlike Rooney’s own. Alice Kelleher, a 29-year-old novelist, has come to the west coast of Ireland to live in a big borrowed house and get away from the international pageant of literary publicity (she takes planes, not trains). She has a million euros in the bank and has just had a nervous breakdown, which left her in hospital for a few weeks: ‘I felt very out of control … I was just extremely angry and upset all the time. I wasn’t in control of myself, I couldn’t live normally. I can’t explain it more than that.’ Normality has totemic significance in Rooney’s writing: her characters either think of themselves as ‘special’ – that is, smart and sensitive but stranded among normal people – or they yearn to be normal rather than fucked up and damaged. There is a relentless keeping score on this account, not only of who is a ‘normal’ person but of who is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘nice’ or ‘evil’ person. Every action, every bit of behaviour, may reveal an essence. It’s a strange way of portraying characters who are basically innocent and not in the least weird.
The person Alice is not explaining her breakdown to is Felix, who is both normal – that is, not a writer, not even a reader, but a worker in an Amazonesque warehouse – and also experienced in being not normal: his mother died recently, and he has sunk into despair, missing work, losing a job and – like Alice – going on Prozac. That they’ve both been depressed is the beginning of their bond, after a match on Tinder and an awkward date. That Felix is also kind to his dog completes the cornball Hollywood logic of his appeal, a redeeming quality in a dumbass bore. Beautiful World charts their romance over the course of several months, and juxtaposes it to that of two of Alice’s friends in Dublin, Eileen and Simon. Scenes showing one couple or the other alternate with emails between Alice and Eileen until all four principals come together in the house by the coast. Emails exchanged a year later let us know that both love affairs have lasted through lockdown and at least one baby is on the way. Rooney’s previous ambivalence about monogamy and commitment has been overcome and a double marriage plot achieved. Happiness is declared. Bravo!
How much you enjoy Rooney’s novels – enjoyment is the point, and there’s no denying her broad appeal – depends on your attitude towards her characters. I’m not talking about likeability, or the moral status these people are constantly calculating, or their relentlessly avowed leftist politics: that’s fine – plenty of people talk a radical talk and live their lives as complacent liberals. I mean simply: are they interesting? On my scorecard, Frances and Bobbi come top: Bobbi because she shoots her mouth off a lot and doesn’t seem to give much of a fuck what anybody, except sometimes Frances, thinks of her; Frances because of the tension between her self-image as a virtuous victim (of her father, of the patriarchy, of capitalism, of her own body) and her obvious selfishness, by which I mean her hunger for literary success and for Nick, the husband of her mentor Melissa. There’s a revealing chat between Frances (‘me’) and Bobbi towards the end of Conversations with Friends:
Bobbi: you have a communist intuition
me: well no, I probably only hated authority because I resent being told what to do
me: if not for you I could have become a cult leader
me: or an ayn rand fan
Bobbi: hey, i resent being told what to do!!
me: yes but out of spiritual purity
me: not a will to power
Imagining Frances as an Ayn Rand fan is not very difficult, given the way she tries to dominate everybody she meets – a ‘will to power’ she quietly and repeatedly manifests, especially in seducing Nick. He’s a television and film actor, good-looking but passive. Frances tells him he has ‘no personality’, and the remark rings true with every text he sends and word he utters.
Reading Normal People sometimes feels like doing maths problems, since Marianne and Connell seem less like people than a quivering set of power dynamics. At school, she’s richer than him, but he’s more popular. Their relative popularity switches when they go to university, where wealth is more salient than amiability. He’s taller than her new boyfriend, but the new boyfriend is loaded: who would intimidate whom? When Marianne gets back from a semester in Sweden, she’s skinnier than she used to be. A point to Marianne. In academic achievement it’s a draw, but after the suicide of a schoolmate Connell inches nearer to Marianne on the trauma scale, Marianne having had a headstart thanks to her violent (now dead) dad, not to mention her shit of a brother and nasty mother.
The closest thing to a saint in Rooney’s novels is Lorraine, Connell’s mother and Marianne’s family cleaner. The ‘house is never really clean anymore’, Marianne thinks after she leaves to take a job at a hotel. Lorraine’s love, and the absence of a corrupting father, is understood to be the source of Connell’s virtue. Her analogue in Beautiful World is Felix, the working-class Joe with no path up through the meritocracy – an ‘evil’ system, Marianne and Connell agree in Normal People as they skate to the top. He is the novel’s most interesting character, as well as its least coherent. Scorecard: Alice discovers he likes ‘rough anal’ porn, which is bad; he shows her a cute raccoon video on YouTube, which is good; he had some dodgy sexual relations as a teen, bad but forgivable; he seems to be well endowed, also good; his hands sometimes get cut up at the warehouse, quite sympathetic; he, like Alice, claims to be bisexual, very modern; he sometimes gets too drunk and high at the club and makes a booty call, bad but not too bad; he is musical and at a party sings ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as someone does in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, very authentic. Above all, he is uninhibited: he accepts Alice’s offer of a free trip to Rome when she invites him after their second encounter; he asks if she has any good drugs (alas, nobody ever offers her them); he isn’t shy about inquiring how much money people make and how they spend their time. But his openness is less a quality of his personality or class status than a counterpoint to the obvious fact that Alice, Eileen and Simon are uptight.
About Eileen and Simon there’s not much to say: as a couple, they seem to have been imported from a storybook about childhood affection that blooms into adult romance, with a few millennial hang-ups thrown in. Will he give up seeing other women? He’s up for it, but doesn’t say so until Eileen requests it directly, by which point he in fact already has: another of the pointless misunderstandings Rooney sees as intrinsic to love. Eileen works at a literary magazine where she makes sure Auden’s initials are formatted properly, and Simon has a high-up but dull job working for the Irish government, pushing paper to vaguely do-gooder ends. They thought they would make so much more of their lives. Who didn’t? As a couple, they are what’s now called ‘trad’. Simon goes to church: a hot place to go, Eileen thinks, after a night of sex.
There is lots of sex. For a good span of the novel, every chapter that isn’t an email climaxes with a sex scene. These weren’t my thing. Relayed in a cold third person, they lack the emotional point of view of the sex in Rooney’s earlier books, which are sparer and less porny. They sound not unlike moving furniture, and have something in common with a couple of scenes of Felix sorting packages at the warehouse. There’s a lot of ‘entering’ and not much kissing. I wondered if Rooney has ever read Don DeLillo’s White Noise, in which Jack and Babette in bed make fun of ‘entering’ as a euphemism for fucking. The word ‘whimpering’ comes up with reference to noises both Alice and Eileen make: I couldn’t tell if this was meant to be sexy or a joke. Either way, I refrained from laughing.
But I did laugh a lot at the emails between Alice and Eileen, because they are pretty vapid: embarrassing to read and perhaps to have written. It’s true that people send one another articles and other trivia over email all the time, but why make characters in a novel exchange Wikipedia pages before veering into discussion of their love lives? I took this as a sign of laziness on Rooney’s part but perhaps it’s a mark of her genius for the broad stroke. Either way, she partakes of the spirit of political futility that has become a cliché in Anglophone fiction over the past half decade, with Trump and Brexit and heightened anxiety about climate change. In the first of these emails, after some sophomoric ruminations about the landscape of Dublin and the contradictions inherent in right-wing free-market politics being labelled ‘conservative’, Alice describes going into a shop for lunch:
I suddenly had the strangest sensation – a spontaneous awareness of the unlikeliness of this life. I mean, I thought 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 this, this, is what all their work sustains! This lifestyle, for people like us! All the various brands of soft drinks in plastic bottles and all the pre-packaged lunch deals and confectionery in sealed bags and store-baked pastries – this is it, the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations. All for this! This convenience shop! I felt dizzy thinking about it. I mean I really felt ill. It was as if I suddenly remembered that my life was all part of a television show – and every day people died making the show, were ground to death in the most horrific ways, children, women, and all so that I could choose from various lunch options, each packaged in multiple layers of single-use plastic. That was what they died for – that was the great experiment. I thought I would throw up.
Having stifled my impulse to thank Alice for her concern about the world’s peasants and to hope that she enjoys a nice lunch, what strikes me about this passage is the latent sadism and vanity at play in imagining that whole populations are being ground to death so that you may be served a sandwich or whatever. This is exultation disguised as renunciation: the world perishing in the service of a princess walking over corpses to the till at Marks & Spencer. It isn’t a big step from here to seeing Alice’s relationship with Felix, that working-class stud from the provinces, as a form of sex tourism. ‘Have you ever been to Rome?’
‘Every day,’ Alice writes to Eileen, ‘I wonder why my life has turned out this way. I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things – having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself.’ She is aware that her problems don’t add up to a hill of beans in this messed-up world, but she keeps on with complaints about the upmarket lit biz. The other writers are vain, insecure and disconnected from real life. The whole scene is full of ‘bloodthirsty egomaniacs’ and nobody ‘genuine’. She resents the invasion of her privacy and feels alienated from her media persona. She retains faith in the value of writing about sex and friendship in the face of apocalypse, but says her books are ‘morally and politically worthless’. It puts me in mind of something another former literary phenom once said: ‘We wanted to change the nature of American life,’ Norman Mailer told a French television interviewer in 1994. ‘None of us ended up as heroes; we ended up as celebrities.’