September 3, 2021

Next week, fans of Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney can enjoy a visit to the Sally Rooney pop-up shop in Shoreditch. The shop — a venture to mark the publication of her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? — will stock Rooney’s books alongside a curated selection of her personal recommendations, as well as hosting “workshops, book clubs and daily giveaways, including a calligraphy and candle-making class”.

Only open for three days, it is the ultimate immersion in Brand Rooney, a retail experience squarely targeting the millennial women who make up the majority of her audience. We (there is no point in pretending I’m not a Rooney fan, even if at 40 to her 30, I’m pushing the demographic) don’t just want to consume: we want to experience our values at the point of sale, whether we’re buying cosmetics or clothes or the latest book by the author who’s been labelled the “voice of her generation” for her mix of acutely observed realism and startlingly intense sex.

For your average midlist author — the kind of writer whose publicity campaigns tend to involve schlepping out to provincial arts festivals and hoping cheap red wine will take the edge off audience indifference — all this fuss over Rooney must spark a certain resentment. And one author in particular must resent it more than anyone. Rooney is, famously, a Marxist. She also despises the celebrity that has come with her success. Yet here she is, fronting up a lifestyle outlet as though she were a Love Island influencer.

It’s a strangely tortured position, and one that seems to preoccupy her, to the increasing detriment of her fiction. Beautiful World, Where Are You? is the story of two friends from Dublin: a successful novelist called Alice and an editor on a publicly funded literary magazine called Eileen, both approaching thirty. They fall in love with men, have enjoyably dirty sex which is described in enjoyably dirty detail, struggle to believe that they are worthy of love and write each other long emails about the decline of civilisation and (in Alice’s case) the horrors of having a public profile.

As in her first two novels, Rooney shows an unnerving ability to compact the world into a few shrewd observations. Take this description of the few months when everyone in Eileen’s social circle, including Alice, seemed to be moving out of town:

“It was April and several of Eileen’s friends had recently left or were in the process of leaving Dublin. She attended the leaving parties, wearing her dark-green dress with the buttons, or her yellow dress with the matching belt. In living rooms with low ceilings and paper lampshades, people talked to her about the property market.”

In fewer than 50 words, Rooney sketches a socioeconomic thesis. Those rooms with their provisional furnishings, designed to be lived in only until they could be fled; Eileen with her sparse wardrobe, feeling adulthood escape her as her friends move on.

But the detail is also an act of deep affection. In chapter 17 of Adam Bede, George Eliot broke off from the story to deliver a short essay on the ethics of realism. Beauty, she wrote, is a fine thing, but should be sought in places besides pure aesthetics. The work of the novelist, in Eliot’s view, was “to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things”. The buttons, the belt, the lampshade — these are Rooney’s “commonplace things”, and she records them because she cares for them and for the people they belong to.

Her attention to the material grounds her incredibly sharp sense of the emotional exchanges between humans. When Eileen and her long-term on-off lover Simon make eye contact at a wedding, it summons a bravura flashback of their entire relationship: “their phone calls, the messages they wrote to one another, their jealousies, the years of looks, suppressed smiles, their dictionary of little touches.” This describes a certain kind of accumulated intimacy so precisely, there’s a shock to seeing it on the page — as though Rooney has stolen your life to offer it back to you.

But despite these strengths, Beautiful World, Where Are You? is not a good novel, even if Rooney’s limpid style means it’s always a readable one. The problem is that, after two very fine novels of writing what she knows, she seems to have become a prisoner of her own perspective. Rooney is insistent that, even though Alice is also a novelist, she is not a self-portrait. Still, the similarities between the two are too glaring to be ignored.

For one thing, Alice’s output sounds an awful lot like Rooney’s: her boyfriend teasingly calls them “filthy books”, while Alice scathingly classifies them as “sensitive little novels about ‘real life’”. Alice’s success has been vertiginous, like Rooney’s. And her experience of fame has been scarring, like Rooney’s. In the long emails between Alice and Eileen which make up much of Beautiful World, Alice attacks what Rooney has called the “hell” of literary celebrity. “They never tire of giving me awards, do they?” complains Alice. “It’s a shame I’ve tired so quickly of receiving them…”

This is not a very sympathetic whine, and nor is it obvious that it’s supposed to be (Alice and Eileen are so close in character, they write with one voice, as though they are the competing parts of Rooney’s own self). But elsewhere, the nightmare quality of celebrity is vividly realised: when Alice writes about an online critic who “genuinely believes that because she has seen my photo and read my novels, she knows me personally” there’s a sickly sense of invasion.

There’s something about Rooney’s emotional register that probably does encourage over-identification. She is not, after all, writing postmodern wordplay epics. She’s writing about exactly how it feels to lock your gaze with someone you fancy and feel the weight of years of wanting behind it. It must be draining to be the conduit for such powerful private emotions: there’s a toddler logic that persists into adulthood which believes that if someone can see your heart, you must be able to see them too.

In a Guardian interview to promote Beautiful World, Rooney presented the engagement with fame as a necessary evil, the precondition for anyone talented who wishes to exercise their talent. “Of course, that person could stop doing whatever it is they’re good at, in order to be allowed to retire from public life, but that seems to me like a big sacrifice on their part and an exercise in cultural self-destruction for the rest of us…” But there’s no binding contract saying that the successful novelist must also be relentlessly available.

Beautiful World isn’t just fixated on fame: it’s dependent on fame for its meaning. Without Rooney’s own celebrity to frame Alice’s experiences, this would be a far less intriguing novel. It’s impossible to care about these two couples the way you could care about Marianne and Connell in Normal People. The epistolary chunks hobble the story with unimpressive philosophising like “human beings lost [the instinct for beauty] when the Berlin Wall came down”. Beautiful World will interest you in exact proportion to your interest in the cultural phenomenon of the Great Millennial Novelist Sally Rooney.

“People who intentionally become famous — I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it — are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill,” says Alice, and she does have a point. So why doesn’t Rooney follow the example of Thomas Pynchon and embrace the mystique of life as a literary recluse? Why pose for the Guardian holding an owl? Why the pop-up shop? Rooney’s success is deserved. Her celebrity is optional, and — judging from the gulf between Beautiful World and her other novels — it’s the least interesting thing about her.

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