The Rooney Effect
Matthew Ryan on the novels of Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney is often described as the voice of the millennials. Her novels have certainly attracted the sort of enthusiasm that millennial readers had saved previously for Harry Potter. A student in my Irish Literature class told me, when we moved on from our reading of Rooney, that there was now a Normal People-shaped hole left in her life.
It would be interesting to consider the Rooney phenomenon as a successful marketing campaign. (People queued in the street for her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Themed bucket hats are available from pop-up shops.) I think, however, there is more at work here than the marketable image of a relatable author and the voice-of-the-millennials schtick. Ironically, amid the publicity-driven ubiquity, it might be Rooney’s critique of the pervasiveness of the market in their lives that is appealing to millennial readers.
Rooney describes herself as a Marxist, so her politics are often discussed in interviews and reviews; this contrasts with the way ideology remains implicit for authors who are assumed to affirm the hegemony of neoliberalism. So, Rooney – like her characters – talks about Marxism and capitalism and sometimes is mocked for doing so. She is, after all, a middle-class white woman doing well after her education at Dublin’s Trinity College. There is plenty of scope here for simplistic rebukes relying on terms like, ‘elites’, ‘chattering classes’, ‘privilege’ or the condescension of ‘youth’.
So, Rooney is careful in interviews, even as she wrestles with the key Marxist descriptor, ‘working class’:
On the one hand, all workers have some basic political goals in common, and recognising those commonalities could help to build class solidarity […] On the other hand, relatively wealthy and privileged workers, say, software developers at major tech companies […] have very different lives from more obviously underpaid and exploited workers. Does it make sense to say both kinds of workers belong to the same ‘class’? I don’t know.
Here Rooney echoes – in less definitive tone – a scene from Beautiful World, Where Are You in which Eileen (a low-paid copy editor) engages in a brief and half-hearted argument about the meaning of working class with some acquaintances in a hip Dublin bar. Exasperated, Eileen dismisses the idea of class as culture or as ‘identity’: “Everything is an identity now”. A clear-thinking friend (presumably a Sociology major) intervenes to disentangle contending meanings: “two distinct population groups: one, the broad constituency of people whose income was derived from labour rather than capital, and the other an impoverished primarily urban subsection of that group with a particular set of cultural traditions and signifiers.” This unlikely pub banter has the advantage of concise resolution, freeing a vindicated Eileen for her quick getaway to a booty call on the way home with love-interest, Simon. The upshot: if you’re not Elon Musk or Gina Rinehart then you’re working class. That said, Rooney’s novels are propelled by the remaining complexities of desire, miscommunication and wealth differences amongst the varied ‘constituencies’ of workers.
Mixing sex and politics, for Rooney, has its uses. Despite a plodding start, Beautiful World, Where Are You eventually gets down to the romantic intrigue of will they/won’t they that drove Conversations with Friends and Normal People. The early section is dominated by ponderous social theory – by turns rage-filled and despairing – in the form of emails exchanged between Eileen and her best friend, Alice (highly successful novelist, post-breakdown). Rooney’s latest novel restricts the politics to this leaden exchange for too long. This might disappoint readers expecting the integration of sex and society achieved in her previous books.
Beautiful World, Where Are You has less sexed-up Jane Austen-style social satire than Normal People and less of the emotional engagement that drove so many readers (and viewers) to feverous concern for the lovers, Marianne and Connell. Normal People made readers care about the precarity threatening the intimate interactions of its characters. That earlier novel, like its predecessor Conversations with Friends, attempted to capture the way capitalist formation of value permeates everything - even the sex lives of relatively privileged Irish twenty-somethings.
In Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture, Walter Benn Michaels argues the popularity of S&M sex in contemporary novels and memoir is not altogether to do with reader titillation. It is licensed to be consumed openly rather than furtively, by the contractual clarity and liberal ethics of individual choice and consent. So, as Michaels has it, the power of a contract is that “choice” can function to turn “slavery into freedom”. A submissive participant in an S&M exchange is in fact expressing freedom by choosing to perform slavery. This is the shared logic of the zero-hours contract, which is at the base of so much of the precarious work of the gig economy.
It is also a problem for the lovers, Marianne and Connell, in Normal People. The language of contractual exchange is not adequate to describe their relationship. Throughout the novel, they find they are missing the means to articulate their situation and therefore have difficulty maintaining the relationship. They are plagued by inequalities of social and econmic capital. Anxiety and recursive re-enactment of family violence haunt them.
Moving through the performance of exploitation in the sexual aesthetics of Marianne’s S&M encounters with others, they arrive at another form of social exchange which is not based in the contractual transactions of dominance and submission. Rather, the concluding description of their relationship is articulated in the language of gift exchange: “He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her.”
Talk of the “gift” calls up durable relations of reciprocity – like those described by anthropologists Marcell Mauss and David Graeber – rather than the contractual language of sexual exchanges or contests in the field of cultural capital. Normal People ends with the possibility of a new libidinal economy. They arrive at the possibility of a relationship by moving through and beyond the neoliberal language of contractual love.
Another student from my class remarked that Normal People is the story of people trying to form a loving relationship under conditions of alienation. This, I think, explains the durability of Rooney’s appeal. (Even if the style of Beautiful World, Where Are You could disappoint.) You might not work in a call centre or a warehouse, but your intimate life is still inflected with the language and relations of commodity and consumption. The novels dwell on the precarity that seeps out from the economy into bars and bedrooms. At the same time, Rooney’s novels hold out the possibility that other forms of life, other languages of love, remain possible. Familiarity with alienation and hope for something beyond it could be the “commonalities” Rooney sees at the base of a new solidarity.