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.

Normal People

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: It is ok if I come in your mouth?” (p. 28)

There’s a well-worn bit of folk wisdom, that the body knows what it needs. That if you’re iron-deficient, you’ll develop a sudden, strong hankering for, like, kale. Or if a cold is about to come on and you need the immune boost that vitamin C provides, you’ll suddenly crave oranges. That your body can sense its own mineral needs, and translate these needs into food desires below the level of your consciousness.

Ok, sure. Why not? The body is smart.

I wonder, though, whether there is a similar process to address emotional deficiencies. Whether, when we are hurting, or in deep need of solace or wisdom of a particular kind, our psyches know to reach out and get it, even before we have understood the trouble we are in.

I noticed recently that I have been reading novels. I have been reading basically nothing except novels. This is unusual for me: normally, my non-fiction to fiction ratio is about 1:1.

Weirder still, the novels I am reading are changing. My bookshelves reveal a historical preference: I am, as we have discussed many times, a bit of a traditionalist, and so my shelves are dominated by dead, old, white men (which is coincident with, rather than representative of, my literary values: I don’t think white men are intrinsically better than anyone else – I think they gave themselves an unfair lead). If I were asked to list my favorite authors, not a single living author would crack the top…ten*?

*(Although, in the spirit of answering the query honestly: one of the authors I love the most in world, David Foster Wallace, ought to be alive)

And yet, lately, I have been reading almost exclusively contemporary fiction. Weirdest still, I have been reading almost exclusively fiction written by women.

This is enormously out of character for me, but sometimes the heart knows what it needs better than the head. And I have learned that, when the body craves something, it is probably best to consume it. So I’ve been leaning into my emotional needs and reading whatever strikes my fancy, no matter how contemporary, unvetted, or estrogenic it may be.

A few weeks ago I read Sally Rooney’s debut novel, ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I liked it – I thought it was a strong piece of work, but I didn’t feel nourished by it, particularly. I appreciated it, as an intellectual accomplishment, but I didn’t think that I connected with it, emotionally, at the time.

But I have felt the need to read her second novel, ‘Normal People‘, fairly urgently ever since. Like ‘Conversations with Friends‘, ‘Normal People’ made all the important literary people pee their pants, which of course made me not want to read it, but there was something that kept nagging at me. And so, this week, like someone with an iron-deficiency and a kale salad, I sat down and read ‘Normal People’ in one sitting.

Normal People‘ is the story of Connell and Marianne. Connell and Marianne know each other from school – Marianne is rich and unpopular; intensely smart and traumatized by a deeply fucked up family, she moves through the world almost totally alone. Connell is the son of her family’s housekeeper. He is popular and handsome; also smart, he is kind and everyone likes him.

In the afternoons when Connell comes to pick up his mother from Marianne’s house, he and Marianne will form a relationship that is both intense and secret. Her profound unpopularity makes Connell ashamed of her, an unkindness he will not really understand until they go off to Trinity together. There, as Marianne becomes popular and sought-after, and Connell is handicapped for the first time by his shyness and working-class background, both of them will try to discover if they love each other and whether they can be happy.

Conversations with Friends‘ is, at the end of the day, a story about friendship. It is a love story, but it’s about how love hides in friendship. ‘Normal People‘ is a love story, a story about great and transformative love. But it is written in the same spare-and-yet-unsparing style as ‘Conversations with Friends’, which makes it feel disorienting and scary and painful, sort of like being in love.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I find Rooney’s writing extremely effective. I thought at first that her severe lack of style was a little over-stylized (if that makes sense), but I’m completely on board now. The lack of authorial voice forces you into the perspective of the character, right up against them. It’s forgiving and present. Which is a particular accomplishment because ‘Normal People‘ alternately takes the perspective of both of its main characters.

I think it really comes down to why people read novels in the first place.

There are many valid reasons to read novels. People read them to be entertained, or because they are assigned them in school, or to make themselves seem smart.

But why do people read novels like this, as adults, when no one is watching? I think, and maybe I am only speaking for myself, that people read novels to learn about how other people feel, to understand their own feelings, to learn whether their own feelings are normal, to make sense of the world around them, to try to see the world through other people’s eyes and to see whether they are, in fact, part of a common humanity. They read them to see the great range of human emotional possibility, and to fit themselves within that range. They are maps for our hearts.

Sally Rooney

Which doesn’t mean that goodness doesn’t matter. I’m not sure that writerly skill necessarily makes a novel more emotionally effective – in fact, it’s often inversely correlated (Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Dickens, so many of the great writers leave people cold) – but when a well-written novel is emotionally effective, the two qualities become greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s what happened with ‘Normal People‘. The brutal bluntness of the prose, the unflinching eye Rooney uses to examine her characters, the keen ear she has for the subtleties of complex and contradictory human emotions, all combine to make her novels an immersive and moving experience.

I think I understand why I needed to read ‘Normal People‘ right now. ‘Normal People’ is about whether or not broken people can be loved, and that is a question I’ve spent a lot of my life asking. And it is the question I’ve spent most of the last year obsessing over.

I think that ‘Normal People‘ is a probably a great novel, but I’m not really in a position to judge because the only thing that I can think about is how it was exactly what I needed. I’m used to thinking about whether or not books are good; I am used to connecting with them intellectually. I don’t usually just let novels happen to me.

And, of course, ‘Normal People‘ didn’t answer any questions, and didn’t solve any problems. I don’t think that was the point. And I didn’t feel better per se, but I did feel more connected. More normal.

Conversations with Friends

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

One of my small narcissisms: I disdain book fads.

Every year, there are It books, authors the literary cognoscenti have their panties all twisted up about, the new novel that the New York Review of Books declares a Must Read, that every independent bookstore has on it’s Staff Recommendations table (in hardcover), whose author Terry Gross just interviewed last week.

I try to avoid these books.

It’s not that I think they’re all bad books, not at all. Many of them are celebrated quite appropriately (you can count me, for example, among the legions of frothing Elena Ferrante fans).

However, they aren’t all great: some are merely well-publicized. Some are highly experimental, a novel written in all questions, or a novel in one long sentence (these are real things*, and I’ve actually read and loved one of them). Some are more timely than good. Some are fine, but no one will, or should, remember them in five years.

*’The Interrogative Mood‘, Padgett Powell; ‘Ducks, Newburyport‘, by Lucy Ellman

I’m a snob for the Literary Canon – we’ve talked about this before – and, the truth is, if I spent my time reading every contemporary novel that Michiko Kakutani thought I needed to, I wouldn’t have time to read anything else. So I like to give a book twenty years or so, see how it ages, see whether it’s a flash in the pan or whether anyone remembers it a decade later.

But I make exceptions, for all sorts of valid or stupid reasons. Sometimes a book comes recommended by someone I trust; sometimes it catches my eye; sometimes I have already learned to love the author, or the author keeps being compared to someone else I love (careful with this one – it pretty much never turns out the way you want it to).

And, a few weeks ago, I was going through my old New Yorkers and came across a review of ‘Conversations with Friends‘, a fad book from 2017 that I had successfully avoided. But this review (by Alexandra Schwartz) was called, ‘A New Kind of Adultery Novel‘. I didn’t read the review – I didn’t need to. I’m kind of a creepy little pervert, and there was absolutely no chance I wasn’t going to read a New Kind of Adultery Novel. So this week I read ‘Conversations with Friends’.

Frances and Bobbi went to school together. They dated, and then they broke up, and now they are best friends, college students in Dublin, where they perform spoken-word poetry together. Bobbi is beautiful and outlandish and charismatic. Frances is our narrator, plain and severe, quiet and cerebral. She is a socialist and poet, a bisexual who believes that love has been co-opted by capitalism to wring unpaid labor out of mothers.

One night, the two friends are approached after a show by Melissa, an established artist and photographer. As they begin to get to know her, it becomes clear that, like many people, Melissa prefers Bobbi, and Frances, a little defensively, strikes up a friendship with Melissa’s husband, Nick. Nick is a actor who is semi-famous, handsome and much smarter and more sardonic than he appears. As Frances and Nick begin an affair, the relationship between the four adults becomes more and more complicated until it begins to threaten even the love Bobbi and Frances have for each other.

People went kind of bonkers about ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I myself had multiple girlfriends tell me that I had to read it (that way that people do that makes you want to hit them). And I think I know why, even if I do not perhaps share the wildness of the enthusiasm.

Rooney has a way of writing, a plainness of presentation, which is nearly unique and very effective. This is a little what people are reacting to when they talk about the revolution that Hemingway’s prose represented: the way the spareness of the prose, the lack of adornment, left the reader nowhere to hide.

But Hemingway wasn’t writing about the intricate interiors of human relationships – Rooney is, and so the effect is very different. When people write about feelings, even the feelings of fictional characters, they tend to explicitly frame them as feelings, to soften their reality, to layer them away from fact: “I felt as though…”; “He acted like I was…”; “It was as though I had been…”. We lard our feelings with metaphors and analogies, which are illustrative, but also distancing. Even as we contemplate the feeling, we are imagining something else.

Rooney doesn’t do this. She doesn’t invest in the emotional reality of her characters so much as she simply states it as reality and moves on. She doesn’t interpret or elaborate. Because her prose so fundamentally inhabits the experience of her protagonist, when she does employ similes, they have the effect of turning back inwards, into the mind of Frances.

“Certain elements of my relationship with Nick had changed since he told Melissa we were together. I sent him sentimental texts during daytime hours and he called me when he was drunk to tell me nice things about my personality. The sex itself was similar, but afterward was different. Instead of feeling tranquil, I felt oddly defenseless, like an animal playing dead. It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn’t try to stop him. When I described this to him he said he felt the same, but he was sleepy and he might not really have been listening.” (p. 232)

Sally Rooney

All of which, because of the bareness of the prose, has the effect of making Frances a little hard to take.

Which, ok, a brief temper tantrum on my part: I really, really hate when people object to books because the characters aren’t “likable” or because “there’s no one to root for”. I think it’s infantile to assess books the same way you pick friends: by how much you want to have a beer with them. If you’re only reading books that have people you explicitly like, fuck off to ‘The Babysitters Club’ and let the adults talk.

So it’s not a problem for me that I don’t like Frances (or Bobbi) at all. But, let’s be real: a book about complicated, narcissistic, chilly people hurting each other is a different emotional experience than one that involves heroic, kind people battling evil. ‘Conversations with Friends‘ is a very different book than, say, ‘The Hobbit’. I understand why people reacted to strongly to this book: it’s emotionally bracing. But, like most things that are bracing (a stern talking to from a loved one, a leap into an ice cold lake), it wasn’t pleasant until it was done.

And maybe it wasn’t even pleasant after it was done? But that’s OK – pleasant is emphatically not the point.

Rooney is experimenting with a different way of communicating about emotions. She’s trying to show the interior life of a young woman, show us her anger, and her loneliness, her fear and her attempts at love, the way that she herself experiences them. The prose is meant to be immersive – there is no framing here, to give you distance. And because Frances is angry and lonely and scared and receives no consolation from love, the experience is a little bleak, a little real, a little rough and almost totally undigested.

It’s tough, because I know I was supposed to love ‘Conversations with Friends‘, and so I really, really didn’t want to. When I finished it, I thought it was competent and over-rated.

But I’ve had a couple days to think on it, to get some emotional distance from Frances, and I think maybe I did love it. Or I really, really appreciated it? Or I saw the same thing all the fart-sniffing New York literary whosits saw: a very smart new writer trying something different. And succeeding.