Beautiful World, Where Are you: Part Two

The Part That Is About Sex

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I have a rule.

I call it The Ayn Rand Rule, and I came up it with years ago, after reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’. ‘Atlas Shrugged’, in case you are not familiar, is a pretty bad novel about a woman named Dagny Taggart who runs a railroad company. The book is mostly about how Dagny Taggart and other visionary business leaders are forever being stymied by the forces of consensus mediocrity. These forces cannot stand the truly excellent in their midst and are trying, by any means necessary, to basically ruin everything for everybody. However, if you have read ‘Atlas Shrugged’, you will probably remember that Dagny Taggart, who looks suspiciously like Ayn Rand herself, also spends a significant amount of time having rough sex with several tall, dark, and handsome leaders of the business community.

The out-of-context intensity of these sex scenes, Taggart’s resemblance to Rand, and the juxtaposition with the otherwise totally monotonous moralizing of ‘Atlas Shrugged’, was both poignant and absurd. That Taggart was Rand’s avatar was obvious, but what was also clear from the too-fully-imagined quality of the sex itself was that the whole thing was Rand’s personal fantasy. It felt as though she could not help but write herself into her own polemic novel in a weird, transparent sort of sexy fan-fiction.

Now, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is quite bad, so honestly the sexy interludes are kind of the high point. But, because those scenes are so obviously Rand’s sexual fantasies, they pull you out of the flow of the story and remind you of the author herself. It is as though she had scattered naked pictures of herself throughout the book: more than you probably wanted to know.

Hence The Ayn Rand Rule: I (the Reader) should not be able to tell what gets you (the Author) off just from reading your novel. Sex is fine, but the sex should belong to the story; when the sex is clearly about what you enjoy, when I can tell just from reading it that this is your thing, you have violated the rule.

Now, I realize that I am doing Sally Rooney a huge injustice by writing about her and Ayn Rand in the same post. I feel quite sincerely bad: Rooney is entirely too good an author to have to suffer juxtaposition with Ayn Rand. I feel bad enough about it, in fact, that I wrote a whole other post about ‘Beautiful World’ last week, where I tried to keep the discussion dignified and adult and Ayn Rand-free.

But I needed to describe the Ayn Rand Rule here because, I’m sorry to say, I think Sally Rooney has broken it.

Now, one of the things that is a little tricky about the Ayn Rand Rule is that you can never really be sure that an author has broken it. You may be quite convinced that your author is getting her jollies writing a sex scene, but, unless you actually have sex with the author, you’ll never know for sure. Therefore, Rule violations are always suspected, never proven. So, yes, technically, I cannot say for sure that Sally Rooney has broken the rule, but I think that she has (technically, I can’t even be sure that Ayn Rand violated the Ayn Rand Rule, but I can live with that).

Let me show you what I mean. Here is one of the offending passages from ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, Rooney’s latest:

“He leaned over then and kissed her. Her head against the armrest, his tongue wet in her mouth. Passively she let him undress her, watching his hands unbutton her skirt and roll down her underwear. Reaching up under her knee, he lifted her left leg over the back of the sofa and moved her other foot down onto the floor, so her legs were spread wide open, and she was shivering. Ah, you’re being very good, he said. Shaking her head, she let out a kind of nervous laugh. Lightly with his fingers he touched her, not penetrating her yet, and she pressed her hips down into the couch and closed her eyes. He put a finger inside her then and she exhaled. Good girl, he murmured. Just relax. Gently then he pressed another finger inside her and she cried out, a high ragged cry. Shh, he said. You’re being so good. She was shaking her head again, her mouth open. If you keep talking to me like that I’m going to come, she told him. He was smiling, looking down at her. In a minute, he said. Not yet.” (p. 162)

This type of benignly patriarchal sex, this whimpering ‘Good Girl’ sex, appears several times throughout the book. It is very consistent, and very specific. And since Rooney’s writing is spare, the intensity of these scenes stands out. In some way that is hard to define, Rooney’s characters are more immediate, more tangible, when they are having this kind of sex than they are when they are fighting, talking, emoting, or having other kinds of sex. This is the most vivid they get.

Which automatically suggests an Ayn Rand Rule violation. When sex scenes are the most vivid part of a novel, that’s usually because they are the part which has been most thoroughly imagined by the author. And when the sex in question is distinctive in some way, it feels as though the author has devoted more time to imagining that particular sex than was strictly required by the needs of the work.

OK, so, fine, who cares?

Sally Rooney

I care. Frankly, I care because it makes me uncomfortable.

Now, I’m not uncomfortable with sex in novels. On the contrary, I love sex in novels: I seek it out, in the same way I seek out movies with nudity, because it’s sexy. But when the sex feels more salient than the rest of the work, when it vibrates on a different intensity than the rest of the novel, when I start to feel that the sex is personal for the author, I stop being able to focus on the story and start feeling intruded on by the writer.

It is a minor sin, all things considered. Authors are usually more vivid when describing their personal experiences, that’s normal, and sex, which often intense in life, is usually also intense in fiction. And, while sex has featured heavily in all of Rooney’s novels, this is the first time she’s given me that unpleasant feeling of learning too much, and I am not inclined to hold it against her.

But, it is also going to be one the things I remember mostly clearly about this work. It was absolutely the thing I most wanted to write about. I wrote two posts on ‘Beautiful World’ because I believed that it, and Rooney, deserved more discussion than just an analysis of some sex scenes, but the sex scenes really affected my experience of the book.

That’s the real risk of violating the Ayn Rand Rule: you can completely change the way the book is experienced by the reader. What should be experienced as a work of fiction suddenly swerves and starts to feel like a sexual disclosure by the author. If that’s the intention, it’s all well and good, but in most cases, it’s probably not what the author really wanted. And, at least for me, it’s not what the reader wanted, either.

Beautiful World, Where Are You: Part One

The Part that’s NoT About Sex

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is Sally Rooney’s third novel. Rooney, who is not much older than 30, has become one of the most famous novelists in the world. Her first two novels, ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Normal People’, were both very zeitgeisty: they appeared on the Staff Picks tables at independent bookstores, they topped best seller lists, one was adapted into a TV show. They were the kinds of books that people asked you if had ‘read yet’.

I have read all of Rooney’s books, and in order of their publication. I wasn’t sure what to think after reading ‘Conversations with Friends’, but when I read ‘Normal People’, I gelled into a solid fan. I liked her project, as I understood it. It seemed to me that Rooney was trying to portray human feelings (with all their complexity, ambiguity, and wheel-spinning pointlessness) with flat realism, to treat emotion as just another fact about the world and to describe relationships as though they were not totally subjective.

I actually kind of loved that project, if I’m being honest. Rooney’s tone reminded me of what Hemingway might have sounded like if he were a sober millennial woman (and about 25 IQ points smarter).

‘Beautiful World’ is a little bit of a departure from Rooney’s previous work, although it makes sense to me as a natural extension, a sort of riff, on her first two books. But I have a lot to say about it, so I am going to break this into two parts. In this, the first part, I’d like to give Rooney’s project and prose the attention I think she deserves. In the second part, I’d like to talk about something which is bothering (obsessing?) me: sex.

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is the story (as all of Rooney’s novels are) of two friends: Alice and Eileen. Friends since they were teenagers, Alice and Eileen are now in their twenties. Eileen, who is beautiful and literary, works as a copy editor at a magazine. Alice, who is prickly and complicated, has found international success as a novelist. ‘Beautiful World’ is about these two women, the men that they love, and what happens to their friendship as their paths start to diverge.

If Rooney’s project in her first two books was to talk about feeling as fact, her project in ‘Beautiful World’ is show human relationships without talking about feelings at all. It’s a little weird: the narrative portions of the books are entirely observational. Rooney, as narrator, gives absolutely no information about the internal experience of any of the four main characters.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is a passage from ‘Normal People’:

“He got back into bed besides her and kissed her face. She had been sad before, after the film, but now she was happy. It was in Connell’s power to make her happy. It was something he could just give to her, like money or sex. With other people she seemed so independent and remote, but with Connell she was different, a different person. He was the only one who knew her like that.” (p. 108)

Do you see what I mean when I says she writes feelings as facts? Her emotional assertions are dry, simple, declarative. “She had been sad before…but now she was happy” is as uncontroversial, unqualified, a statement as “She had been 24 before, but now she was 25.” It is not how emotions are usually discussed in literature, where they are usually described rather than asserted.

Compare that to a representative passage in ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’:

“Putting the cloth back in the sink, she said she would make up one of the beds. He looked down at the floor. She came to stand in front of him, and said in a kindly tone of voice: Felix, are you okay? He gave a half-smile. Yeah, I’m sound, he said. Just tired. Finally he met her eyes and said: You don’t want to sleep together, do you? It’s alright if you’ve gone off the idea, I know I was a bit of a prick about it. She looked back at him, her eyes moving over his face. I did feel foolish when I didn’t hear from you, she said. Can you understand why I felt that way or do you think I’m being crazy? Apparently uncomfortable now, he said he didn’t think she was being crazy, and that he had meant to reply to her message, but time had passed and he had started to feel awkward about it.” (p. 184)

If Rooney’s first two books tried to treat our interiority as reportable information, ‘Beautiful World’ tries to remove interiority at all. We are never told how our characters are feeling, what they are thinking – we are only told how they behave.

Sally Rooney

It’s a really interesting approach to take, and I think it would have worked quite nicely, except that Rooney cheated. Each narrative chapter is followed by an epistolary chapter, emails between Alice and Eileen. In my opinion, the decision to add these chapters detracts from the novel rather than adding to it. First of all, it feels as though Rooney didn’t trust herself (or her readers). In the end she isn’t actually content to let her characters’ actions speak for themselves, and so made sure to spell out for us the conclusions she wants us to draw at regular intervals.

But, secondly, the email chapters are unconvincing and, frankly, annoying. They don’t read like actual emails; they feel like authorial explications. They are too long, too verbose. They are essays, and they make both women sound pretentious. Let me give you an example:

“But I think you’re wrong about the instinct for beauty. Human beings lost that when they Berlin Wall came down. I’m not going to get into another argument with you about the Soviet Union, but when it died so did history…Or maybe it was just the end of one civilization, ours, and at some time in the future another will take its place. In that case we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.” (p. 101)

Come the fuck on. I am, myself, a verbose, pretentious millennial woman, but if any of my friends ever sent me that email, I’d never speak to them again. The email chapters aren’t very good – they don’t give us a window into the lives and minds of these two women because they don’t sound like they were written by humans, and anyway wasn’t the point of the novel to not have the window in the first place?

Rooney is a good enough novelist that I would like to allow for the possibility that I am missing something fundamental, but, to me, it feels as though Rooney wanted to try something a little radical, and then had a failure of nerve. I have some sympathy for that, by way: it’s really hard to write about relationships without writing about interiority, and it might have made for a strange, bleak novel. It is totally reasonable that she would have wanted to give her readers some access to her characters; I just don’t think the emails were super successful at that.

But, as for Rooney as a novelist, whatever journey she’s on, I’m with her. The more books she writes, the more interested I am in what she’s trying to do, which, I think, is to really fundamentally find a different way to portray human feeling. It’s a hard project, but a really good one, so I’ll keep riding with her.