Tthere has been so much noise around Sally Rooney’s work, such fervor and maybe a fabricated division. “The Cult of Sally Rooney,” says a headline. “Why do so many people hate Sally Rooney?” Another asks. The discussion cannot focus on the quality of his sentences, which are impeccable, nor on his tone, which is thoughtful, often gentle and always rigorous. It’s prose that you get or don’t get; for some it is incisive, for others banal. Which makes me wonder if it’s so clean that it reflects the biases of readers.
Rooney is certainly interested in precision: his first two novels managed to be sexually accurate without being obscene, and that’s an interesting tip. In its repudiation of shame, the style represents a sort of advance, and perhaps it is this autonomy that irritates those notional critics who are noticeably masculine and noticeably misogynistic. Also – and this really annoys some people – Rooney writes about love.
If “romance” is a key insult here, “millennial” is another. The difference of opinion is characterized, with or without precision, as generational, and part of the conversation is about what should and should not be taken seriously. In his first two books, Rooney wrote scrupulously about encounters that are generally considered fleeting, and therefore somewhat silly: an affair and a first love. The intensities of the experience, so coldly described, are greater than it is socially useful, as society was once constructed. For the generation portrayed in these books, however, these constructions no longer hold up – the young reap the ruin that their ancestors sowed. (Jane Austen’s heroines weren’t troubled by the apocalypse; perhaps that’s why they didn’t stop, in love, to abhor the slave trade.)
“Are we not unhappy unborn babies at the end of the world?” In Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful people, where are you, Alice and Eileen are best friends, on the verge of turning 30, who agree that human civilization is facing collapse, beauty is dead, art is commodified and romance is no. has more importance as a form. These intelligent Irish Marxists are the best friends of the university, and they have a life which, in very different ways, resembles Rooney’s a little. Alice is an incredibly successful young writer and Eileen works for a literary magazine, earning $ 20,000 a year. The book interweaves their separate love stories with the long emails they send to each other, in which they have a lot to discuss and share.
“We are in the last lighted room before dark,” said Alice, as “there is no chance for the planet, and no chance for us.” And although Eileen agrees, she finds comfort in the ordinary. “Maybe we were just born to love and care about the people we know,” she replies. “In fact, that’s the very reason I encourage our survival – because we’re so stupid to each other.” Alice will be stupid about Felix, a possibly sleazy guy she meets on Tinder, and Eileen will be insanely stupid about Simon, the friend of her youth, who is gorgeous, unapproachable, and, of course. all things, Catholic.
Fans of Rooney’s previous work will appreciate the pain and uncertainty of his characters’ maturity, his path with emotional hardships, and his brilliance in showing the barriers we put between ourselves and the love of others. The last third of Beautiful people, where are you, when the four characters meet and connect, is a tour de force. The dialogue never falters and the prose burns the page. It takes some time to get these people together in the same room, however, and this move towards intimacy is intentionally delayed by Rooney’s descriptive prose, which slowly heats up.
We start the novel knowing nothing – even the writer seems to know nothing – about these human beings. The actions are described in microscopic detail, the expressions are difficult to read. People don’t go online, they “tap the icon of a social media app” and their screens take multiple sentences to load. One of the bravery sections of the first part of the book describes, with great flattening effect, the day of Alice promoting her book (or “being famous”) in Rome while on her date, Felix, roams the city with his phone. The life of one person, the life of another person; neither one nor the other is valued, by these sentences, more than the other. Slowly this sense of distance becomes erotically charged; people talk quietly on the phone, screens are bursting with possibilities, words thrill.
“For no apparent reason he turned his light off and continued to drive straight” – it’s kind of like reading the DeLillo ending, until the characters have sex, then it’s like reading Rooney at its coolest, with its distinctive choreography of gaze, and breath, and a powerful precision of what goes where.
After these opaque sexual interactions, the emails between Alice and Eileen arrive in a burst of talk. Women write about the collapse of society and how their easy consumer life is made possible by the misery of millions of people. They are also interested in personal kindness; in Jesus, as a written character; in the relationship between beauty and sympathy; in the uses of fiction and the void of celebrity. Alice is searching and disillusioned, Eileen more optimistic and restless at the same time. Their response to the existential threat is not to speak of nihilism, but of empathy, morality and love.
The two women suffered a loss of meaning. Eileen, who is recovering from a breakup, has long since stopped writing moments in her diary: “the world has come to me flat, like a catalog of information.” Alice, who landed a huge book deal at the age of 25, has just been released from psychiatric care. Fame brought her a radical loss of personality. She has become something that she wanted to be and now strongly despises; finding versions of herself online makes her feel like she’s already dead.
But women continue to figure things out, and their new sexual relationships light up. Recently, Eileen has felt it again: “the closeness, the possibility of beauty, like a light radiating softly from behind the visible world”. Alice remembers how writing a novel made her feel like “God had put His hand on my head and filled me with the most intense desire I have ever felt … the desire to bring about something. which had never existed before ”.
After that, there are no more emails and the prose lights up. When people come together at a family wedding, one spirit gives way to another, stories unfold, comparisons occur – metaphors even! The last part of the novel is all generosity; personal details just emerge, real conversations take place, ideas abound. The reader will meet all of this with a cry of gratitude, although some may wonder why it has taken so long.
How do you follow two brilliantly acclaimed novels? Rooney solved the problem of success by writing about the problem of success. You never know how we should relate to Alice, the writer, who feels separated from her origins by “a chasm of sophistication”. She can be cautious and intimidating, while her indifference to her finances can only be a provocation to the people who love her and have nothing to do with it. Alice hates “the literary production system,” which tells writers they are special and takes them out of ordinary life. As far as she’s concerned, novels don’t matter in the general scheme of things, and her reader (she only mentions one) is online and weird. I found myself wishing that Eileen would push back more strongly, but the worldview shared by friends makes it difficult to set up a proper dialectic here. Meanwhile, “They never tire of rewarding me, do they?” Alice writes, and for my part, I’m starting to think Rooney is pulling our chain. When a fiction writer feels that writers’ opinions shouldn’t matter, the real writer is either eating his cake and eating it, or staging the paradoxes his character laughs so much about.
The exposure of fame, especially sudden fame like Rooney’s, is deeply shocking. Like any trauma, it empties our lives of meaning, at least for a while. After that, there is always the hope that a writer can return to the difficulty and the pleasure of the work – that the world has not stolen from him what we celebrate him for. It’s wonderful to see such a comeback happening in front of you on the page. Alice’s conclusions are essentially religious. For the reader, caring for a fictional character is a way of practicing the kind of “selfless love to which Jesus calls us”. For the writer, a novel is a blessing that cannot be refused. We must all be delighted that she and her creator have found a way out.