The Politics of Sally Rooney’s Relatability

"Beautiful World, Where Are You" wants the contemporary novel to be more relevant. Does it rise to challenge?

“Do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life?”

This is the question Eileen poses to Alice, in one of the email exchanges that pepper the pages of Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You. Alice, a successful novelist struggling to pen her third title, has fled Dublin for a small coastal town in the west of Ireland following a nervous breakdown. Eileen, Alice’s friend from college and now an editor at a literary magazine, is six months out from the break-up of a long-term relationship, and navigating complicated family dynamics in the lead-up to her sister’s wedding. Alice and Eileen immediately appear to be on good terms, if a little aloof, but there is tension bubbling beneath the surface, particularly over when (or whether) they will see each other again in person. But despite this, the emails flow, and in particular, the question of the usefulness of novel is one to which both women frequently return, though neither emerges with a satisfactory answer. When climate change, an increased turn towards far-right politics, and now a pandemic, threaten the future of our entire world, can fiction sustain any meaning, particularly fiction revolving around love and relationships?

Alice self-deprecatingly occupies the anti-novel position, while Eileen defends it. Novels, Alice claims, work by “suppressing the truth of the world…If novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels.” Eileen believes that “breaking up or staying together” is the stuff of life, the only thing people on their deathbeds are interested in talking about. For Alice, the contempt for contemporary literature manifests a form of self-loathing: “my own work is the worst culprit in this regard. For this reason I don’t think I’ll ever write another novel again.” 

This is only one of several debates that occupy these meandering, cerebral email conversations; other topics include the Bronze Age collapse, the artistic depiction of the Muse, and Audre Lorde’s theory of desire. But for all this erudite debate, Alice and Eileen are only human, and what they really want to discuss is the precarity of their own relationships. For Eileen, the preoccupation is Simon, the older, resolutely-Catholic parliamentary assistant whom she’s known since childhood, and with whom she’s had an on-off sexual relationship for almost a decade. Alice, meanwhile, is intrigued by Felix, the sometimes-cruel, sometimes-softie warehouse worker she met on Tinder. 

Rooney has put Beautiful World, Where Are You in the paradoxical position of having to defend its own relevance and worth.

The email debates, then, prime the reader to view the story of Alice, Eileen, Felix, and Simon as a test-case for whether novels of love and relationships are sufficient, whether the distraction they offer is comforting or problematic, and whether the ideas contained within this novel can offer solutions to real life. Like Alice, Sally Rooney is an adherent of the “sex and friendship” novel, and as such, Rooney has put Beautiful World, Where Are You in the paradoxical position of having to defend its own relevance and worth. 

Implicit in Rooney’s inquiry into the problem of the contemporary novel is whether she can—or should—continue to write the same kind of novel as her two previous, which earned Rooney the kind of fame Alice bristles against. Readers fell in love with Conversations with Friends and Normal People precisely because they found a glimmer of recognition on the page, whether the topic was teenage love, the emotional minutiae of sex, or the subtle interplays of class in relationships. “Relatability” is a crude marker of the success of a piece of art, but Rooney’s novels have clicked with so many readers for precisely these reasons.   

What matters here is not who occupies which position, but rather, the way in which this interaction plays out on a social and interpersonal level.

The relationship between Sally Rooney’s novels and her personal politics is one over which much ink has been spilled. (Like Alice, I recognize my own complicity in adding to this ink-spilling, and like Alice, I’m probably not going to stop any time soon.) As a self-described Marxist, Rooney is keenly aware of the social power dynamics between people, and indeed, her novels are often constructed around socio-hierarchical thought experiments. Frances, the protagonist with Conversations with Friends, is constructed to have immense social privilege—she’s white, thin, extremely intelligent, and a top student—with few material advantages. Her fees are paid with assistance, she lives in an apartment owned by her uncle, and even her MacBook is a hand-me-down from a cousin. In Normal People, Marianne and Connell’s relationship is based around an imbalance of power. Connell’s mother may be Marianne’s cleaner, but he exercises greater social capital in school among their peers, and he uses this to ask her to keep their relationship secret. When they move to college, the tables are turned: Marianne’s wealth allows her to fit in more easily among the privileged of Trinity, while Connell finds himself more constrained by his class and background. 

Rooney’s novels revolve around inherently political premises, and her characters, too, are political beings. Take this paradigmatic scene from Conversations with Friends, Rooney’s debut. Frances and her champagne socialist ex-girlfriend Bobbi are staying in France, with the older Melissa and her husband Nick (who Frances is sleeping with), and their friends Derek and Evelyn. In a boozy after-dinner conversations, they discuss the refugee crisis: 

Derek interrupted Evelyn to say something about Western value systems and cultural relativism. Bobbi said that the universal right to Asylum was a constituent part of the “Western value system,” as if any such thing existed. She did the air quotes. 
The naive dream of multiculturalism, Derek said.  Žižek is very good on this. Borders exist for a reason, you know. 
You don’t know how right you are, said Bobbi. But I bet we disagree about what the reason is.

What matters here is not who occupies which position, but rather, the way in which this interaction plays out on a social and interpersonal level. It’s emblematic of the way Rooney employs the socioeconomic context of her characters to flesh out a scene, deftly weaving in tensions over who sticks up for who, and generational mismatches. It’s also the kind of scene for which her novels have been criticized, for offering up complex global issues as set-dressing, in what is essentially a comedy of manners about (mostly) privileged people. 

An important consideration when assessing the privilege or lack thereof of the characters in these novels, is the particular Irish context in which Rooney writes. She alluded to this in a 2017 interview with Michael Nolan of The Tangerine: “I think that when Americans are reading the book [Conversations with Friends] they think Frances is incredibly privileged.” This assumption feeds accusation, and not only from US readers and critics. Just last month, Jessie Tu in the Sydney Morning Herald asked, “Surely there are better literary heroes for our generation than Sally Rooney?,” claiming that “her works are less literature and more cultural product,” a “shameless reassertion of white individualism.” The common complaint that her protagonists all studied at Trinity College Dublin, a “private” college, is unfair; the Irish system certainly isn’t perfect, but fees (for which financial support is available) here are around €3,000 a year, a far-cry from the cost in other countries. Meanwhile, the scholarships won by Marianne and Connell in Normal People have been regarded by some as a deus ex machina which allows Connell to conveniently sidestep his financial problems. Trinity Schools are a quirk of the system, but they do exist, all perks as described. And Marianne and Connell are exactly the types to win them, just as Rooney herself did. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, the fact that Eileen spends most of her salary on rent is a depressing reality for city-dwellers the world over; but that city being Dublin (one of Europe’s most expensive cities) gives it an added sense of despondency. Notice how much time Eileen spends attending her friends’ leaving parties? This is now an unfortunate reality for many in the city. 

Privilege of all kinds (class-based, social, financial) is deconstructed in Beautiful World, Where Are You; although, by virtue of its protagonists being older, the question sometimes feels more settled, while the stakes are higher. Alice worked in a coffee shop before securing the book deal that made her a millionaire, while Eileen graduated magna cum laude and sailed straight into a competitive job at a literary magazine, which she has been stuck in ever since. Alice makes frequent complaints about the demands of being a successful novelist, many of which are entirely sympathetic, though it’s difficult not to cringe when she addresses them to Eileen, whose salary has remained at €20k for ten years, three-quarters she spends sharing an apartment she doesn’t like with a couple she doesn’t care for. Eileen’s one pushback against this, prior to the denouement, feels weak-willed— “I’m not trying to make you feel that your horrible life is, in fact, a privilege, although by any reasonable definition it very literally is…”—but there are many indications Eileen is the more emotionally robust of the pair. When the novel opens, Alice is recovering from a breakdown that kept her in hospital for two months. 

Beautiful World, Where Are You may be Rooney’s most overtly, or self-announcingly, political novel.

Neither of the men feature as fleshed-out characters to the same degree that the women do; but even between the four of them, there are complicated interpersonal dynamics, particularly where Felix is concerned. Whether he is the novel’s only working class character is a point of contention; Eileen identifies as working class, because she doesn’t own property and spends most of her paycheck on rent. “No one here is actually from a working-class background,” a man at a party tells her. “It’s not a fashion, you know. It’s an identity.” “Jesus,” Eileen replies. “I have a job, in other words. Real bourgeoisie behavior.” Later on, Felix expresses his surprise that he earns more than Eileen does: “How do you even live?” he asks her, a question which is never satisfactorily answered. Nevertheless, Felix’s manual job and his lack of interest in intellectualism makes him a fascinating oddity in a Rooney novel, albeit one whose story is underexplored. Alice scorns other writers who know nothing about “ordinary life” but write about it anyway; and yet there is something voyeuristic in the way that she latches onto the almost aggressively ordinary Felix. She can’t return to ordinary life by dint of her success, and we’re left wondering whether the second-best option is to achieve this partially through a relationship with Felix. 

Beautiful World, Where Are You may be Rooney’s most overtly, or self-announcingly, political novel; it is, in its title alone, concerned with the world on a global scale. But the ideas expressed within Alice and Eileen’s emails—which is where we find most of the Themes of the novel, though not necessarily the Meat—are more significant for how the characters relate to them, rather than as independent pieces of writing, or as statements of political intent or positions in themselves. The ideas in the emails are also significant for how they reflect on the reader, and how the reader reflect on them. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, the emotional beats of the plot are conventionally wrapped up, but the reader is left to come to their own conclusions about the intellectual questions it poses. Is it sufficient for us to find fulfillment in a novel about pleasingly intelligent and relatively privileged characters? Is it moral? Are “sex and friendship” novels enough on their own terms?

Alice and Eileen discover their own conclusions to these questions. But their emails function equally as dialogues between the reader and the novel itself, such that you can’t shy away from confronting yourself, your own preferences and biases in literature, as you read it. Rooney doesn’t feed her reader easy answers: she asks us to question the importance of the novel, and the place of readers, from first principles. Whether or not you find the answers comforting, believable, or realistic, is a personal matter. For practicing novelists, the answers to these questions may be more challenging and troubling. But as readers, we can appreciate the artistry, be led along by it, caught up in solving the same problems as the characters, and perhaps their author, in (almost) real time.

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