Toward the end of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, Normal People, the character Connell attends a reading by a visiting author. Shortly after settling into his seat, though, he regrets it. As he looks around the room at his well-off Trinity College classmates, he senses an incongruity between his lofty expectations of literature and the reality that literary events are “attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.” His suspicions are confirmed later, when the attendees gather at a pub, and one yells “Not politics, please” when the subject turns to the recent austerity protests. Connell goes home convinced the whole thing was merely “culture as class performance,” and that “Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.”
Rooney has spoken about this scene in interviews, explaining that, in many ways, Connell was voicing a concern she had as a bestselling author. “I’m very skeptical of the way in which books are marketed as commodities,” she has said, “like accessories that people can fill their homes with, like beautiful items you can fill your shelves with and therefore become a sort of book person.” Even a novel teeming with Marxist invective, she continued, would be politically stymied in our current literary culture; any radicalism contained within the central story would be undone one book tour stop at a time.
It would seem that Rooney—known as much for being a Marxist as for her remarkable early success—is still troubled by the publishing machine. In her newest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, a writer named Alice is having trouble adjusting to fame and fortune. She had a mental breakdown that landed her in a psychiatric hospital in Dublin, but now is staying in a small seaside town to rest and recuperate from the stresses of being a commercially successful author with a conscience. “Have I told you I can’t read contemporary novels anymore?” Alice writes her friend Eileen in an email. “I think it’s because I know too many of the people who write them,” she explains. Just like her, they “come home from their weekend in Berlin, after four newspaper interviews, three photoshoots, two sold-out events, three long leisurely dinners where everyone complained about bad reviews, and they open up the old MacBook to write a beautifully observed little novel about ‘real life.’” Alice is disgusted with them, with herself, and yet she has no idea how to stop attending literary festivals in picturesque European cities.
What would a Marxist novel actually look like? Is it simply about depicting working-class characters? Should it rail against capitalist exploitation? Or should it, as Rooney tends to do in her fiction, work within the confines of the bourgeois novel to expose (and perchance transcend) the transactional nature of relationships under capitalism? Beautiful World, Where Are You takes a stab at all of the above, with Alice and her friend Eileen seemingly commenting in real time on class, fiction, and how the two intersect, indeed debating the very terms of the novel they find themselves in. The result is a decidedly less readable novel than we are used to from Rooney. If her first novel, Conversations With Friends, and Normal People could be gobbled up in a single sitting, Beautiful World, Where Are You actively resists the politics of easy consumption, perhaps seeking some kind of moral victory in what some might consider artistic defeat.
Following the frenzied reception of her earlier novels, Rooney was hailed the first great millennial writer. The best friends at the center of Conversations With Friends, Frances and Bobbi, communicated their emotional longings and socialist politics over social media, text message, and email. This, to some critics, signaled that Rooney had figured out how to bottle and sell the specific charms and pathologies of a generation. Despite these features, the novels themselves were rooted in the traditions of the nineteenth-century bourgeois novel, in which the business of coupling up (and consolidating assets) is given primacy, and heroines who opt for other paths usually meet unhappy, even violent, ends, often at their own hands.
Rooney has expressed her “frustration about the limits of this form”—namely, the romance plot. In her own fiction, she seems to have tried to settle those anxieties by focusing on couples who come from different class backgrounds, and in that way using romance as a vehicle for Marxist critique. In Conversations With Friends, the working-class Frances reluctantly accepts money from her well-off, married lover, Nick, after her bank account goes into overdraft. In Normal People, Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s wealthy mother. Later, one of their breakups comes when Connell is too proud to ask if he can move in with Marianne after he loses his job and can no longer make rent.
That trend continues in Beautiful World, Where Are You. The novel hovers closely over two relationships similarly plagued by money matters. After moving into a “chaotically huge” home, Alice begins to date a local man named Felix, who works in an Amazon-esque warehouse and owes cash all over town. Shortly after their second date, she asks him to go to Rome, where she has been invited to speak at a literary festival on the occasion of one of her novels being translated into Italian. Meanwhile, in Dublin, Eileen, an editorial assistant who lives on a 20,000 euro salary (before tax), becomes romantically entangled with childhood friend Simon. In their hometown, Simon lived in the large manor house across the river from her. One summer in college, after having read Anna Karenina, he took a job on Eileen’s family’s farm. He wanted to be like Tolstoy’s Levin, he tells her, the landowner who finds spiritual enlightenment by working alongside his peasants in the field. “I suppose if you were Levin,” she quips, “we were the muzhiks.”
The novel is half epistolary, with Alice and Eileen exchanging emails about “right-wing politics” and “rapacious market capitalism,” but mostly they talk about Felix and Simon. When Simon starts seeing another woman, Eileen tells Alice—in what feels like a subtle reference to the nineteenth-century heroines that drove Rooney crazy—“Not to be dramatic, but if Simon gets this girl pregnant, I will throw myself out of a window.” Beautiful World, Where Are You is always reminding you that it is a work of literary fiction, and its characters are continually asking one another, and by extension the reader, what the point of all this boy talk is, which is another way of asking: What is the point of reading any Sally Rooney novel? Alice admits embarrassment about spending so much time writing about Felix when the world feels on the brink of collapse, and Eileen concurs: “I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilization is facing collapse.”
Yet sex and friendship are the core of this novel (after someone reads a bad “Trump poem” at a literary event, contemporary politics disappear from the narrative), so what then to do? Alice, inspired by Simon’s religiosity, at one point offers a biblical justification for literary fiction. “Jesus emphasized the necessity of loving others without regard to our own self-interest,” she tells Eileen, coming to her point: “In a way, when we love fictional characters, knowing that they can never love us in return, is that not a method of practicing in miniature the kind of personally disinterested love to which Jesus calls us?” That conclusion provides only a fleeting sense of satisfaction, and Alice and Eileen continue to question their commitment to individual romantic happiness against a backdrop of global poverty and wide-scale suffering.
As the novel continues to search for its political center, it tests out other theories of praxis by prose. One strategy Rooney tries is the explicit depiction of wage labor in an industrial setting. In a letter to Eileen, Alice says that the “contemporary Euro-American novel” is too invested in whether its main characters “break up or stay together” and, as such, is structurally reliant on suppressing the forces that shape global poverty and exploitation. Alice would seem to be a comically narrow reader of contemporary fiction, but I digress. However, the alternative, “to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with ‘the lives of the main characters’ of a novel,” sits no better with Alice. It “would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful,” she argues. None of the characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You lives in what might be called abject poverty, but Rooney does go out of her way to depict the inner workings of Felix’s life in the factory “side by side”—literally—with Alice’s as a novelist:
That morning, while Felix was at work, Alice had a phone call with her agent, discussing invitations she had received to literary festivals and universities. While this phone call took place, Felix was using a handheld scanner to identify and sort various packages into labelled stillage carts, which were then collected and wheeled away by other workers.
The effect of this juxtaposition, which repeats at several points of the novel, is actually one of the most engaging aspects of Beautiful World, Where Are You. It gives a certain concreteness to the discussions of labor that unfold between characters. Though Felix makes less money than Alice, he makes more than Eileen, but Eileen does not hate her job, whereas Felix does. “That’s where we’re different,” he tells her. Yet Alice, who makes more money than both of them, is the unhappiest of all. She feels surrounded by people who either resent her, envy her, or want something from her. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say you work hard,” Felix tells her, “because your job’s a laugh compared to mine. But you have a lot of people wanting things off you.” The novel does not treat Alice as a victim as much as it tries to show how impoverished and lonely everyone is made by a system that requires we sell any part of ourselves that another person might be willing to buy.
The novel’s positioning of Felix alongside Eileen complicates the ways in which the term “working-class” is wielded in the first place. At a friend’s birthday party in Dublin, Eileen asks what everyone is talking about, and the answer is—funnily enough—communism. “The future is bright for the working class,” Eileen quips. A guest named Gary objects to the joke—he thinks someone who works at a literary magazine has no place using the term. “People love to claim they’re working class,” Gary complains. “No one here is actually from a working-class background.” Things get a bit heated, and one of their friends tries to lower the temperature by making a clarification regarding terminology (as one does at birthday parties?): “They were just using the same term ‘working class’ to describe two distinct population groups,” he says,
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 point about culture is an important one, as the depiction of working-class culture is one way in which this novel disappoints considerably, though perhaps not surprisingly. Across Rooney’s body of work, working-class characters rise up through society by showcasing their strong interpretive powers, as they engage astutely with classic works of fiction or the fine arts. Connell impresses his classmates by making insightful remarks about the assigned texts and being the kind of person who is “overcome with agitation” at the thought of Mr. Knightley marrying Harriet instead of Emma. Frances and Eileen also excel academically, estranging them, we are to understand, from their class origins, culturally if not financially. Felix does not fit this mold. But rather than give us a glimpse into what might constitute working-class culture or popular consumption of the arts, Felix appears to exist in a cultural void. He does not read Alice’s novels, even when the two become serious about each other. It feels like a missed opportunity from Rooney, who, for all the novel’s professed concerns about how to disentangle art from the market, still seems unable to imagine how it could operate outside the world of class aspiration.
Beautiful World, Where Are You made me recall the work of another literary critic who believed that establishing a revolutionary culture was a matter of utmost urgency: Vladimir Lenin. In an essay titled “Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution” (1908), Lenin praised the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina for his “merciless criticism of capitalist exploitation” and “unmasking of the profound contradictions between the growth of wealth and achievements of civilization and the growth of poverty, degradation and misery among the working masses.” Yet he could not abide Tolstoy’s commitment to pacifism; Lenin knew he would eventually need an army, and so he ultimately condemned the writer and his “crackpot preaching of submission.”
A Marxist novel, by his estimation, needed to be useful. It had to provide a kind of blueprint for revolution, not merely a comment on its necessity. Fittingly, he preferred a novel titled What Is to Be Done? (1863), written by a literary amateur named Nikolai Chernyshevsky. What Is to Be Done? gave concrete tips on how to start a sewing collective, but it was actually mostly about relationships—specifically how to cope with jealousy when you’ve opened up your marriage, so as to purge it of capitalist notions of ownership.
Like Chernyshevsky, Rooney (though far more talented and Irish) is interested in the interpersonal and in the potential of stories about human intimacy to set a standard for how people relate to one another on a bigger, societal scale. “I want,” says Eileen, “to prove that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care.” Rooney does not devote an entire novel to conditions in the warehouse where Felix works, as, say, Upton Sinclair might have; instead, she describes Felix texting his roommates to make sure they are feeding the dog when he goes to Rome with Alice:
Felix: Hey has sabrina been fed today
Felix: And not just biscuits she wants wet food
Felix: Post a picture when its done I wanna see her
This moment with Felix and dog is, however, a rare instance of “love and care” in the novel that felt convincing to me. The other couples come across like a thought experiment in class relations that got rushed into production because Eileen and Alice were anxious about turning 30. As the heroines capitulate to genre expectations, so, too, does the novel, leaving us with a conventional bourgeois story that wants us to know it considered the alternatives, but decided to go with something a little more, well—marketable.