Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club by Sandra Ens on November 1, 2022
My friend and former colleague, a science and math teacher, enjoyed reading, among other things, letters exchanged between the great physicists of the twentieth century: Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg. When, in the late 1990s, it became evident that emails were overtaking letters as the primary mode of written communication, he wondered about what might be lost. Carefully crafted letters created a record of thoughts that were explored and theories that were postulated, the dialogue captured and documented, valued for its historical significance. He felt that emails would not capture the same depth of thought. But when email becomes the primary exchange of ideas, that significance can be preserved.
The emails between Alice and Eileen, good friends and the main characters of Sally Rooney’s third novel Beautiful World, Where are You (2021), do exactly that: explore the writer’s thoughts and opinions, and give us a glimpse of the millennial world. Like Charles Dickens, Rooney explores class distinctions; like Jane Austen, her characters exchange letters – via email – which detail their activities and examine their feelings. As a thoughtful person born late in the 20th century, Rooney worries about the issues of our time: climate change, right-wing politics, racism and policing. Her Marxist politics emerge in her concern, or rather, the concerns raised by her characters, about capitalism and oppression. Her characters exchange ideas and argue positions – her background as a champion debater is clearly evident.
Hailed as the “first great millennial author” (New York Times, 2018-08-31) establishes an expectation, that Rooney communicates in epigrammatic, unpunctuated, uncapitalized text messages in which words are reduced to letters (such as ‘ru ok’), cute TikTok videos of what she’s cooking for dinner (‘this feta tomato pasta is gr8’), or interviews punctuated, with, like, meaningless expressions and dialogue fillers.
This is not the case.
Rooney’s books are about characters and relationships. The privacy of a friendship is conveyed through their intimate interactions, creating an intimacy with the reader – we know these characters well by the end of the novel. We overhear their conversations, and we also know their thoughts, as if the characters are talking directly to us. Rooney says: “I tend to write characters who are roughly as articulate and insightful as I am about what they think and feel. In other words, they are sometimes perceptive but more often crushingly unable to describe or explain what is going on in their lives……I try not to withhold from my characters the level of insight that I feel I would be capable of in their circumstances. It’s important for me to feel that I wouldn’t do any better than them with the options they have available—otherwise I would be winking at the reader behind my own characters’ backs, which would make me feel horribly disloyal.” (The New Yorker, 2019-03-11) In other words, as one of her characters puts it, “We have to live through things before we understand them”.
The publication of her first two books, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), and the television series of both novels, has made Sally Rooney successful and famous. Rooney’s third book, Beautiful World, Where are You, published in 2021, examines the friendship between Alice, a successful writer recovering from a psychological breakdown, and Eileen, an editor at a literary magazine. Alice feels like another one of Rooney’s alter-egos as she examines “a kind of psychological toll” her success has taken. “There’s a level at which I’m using the book in some way to explore emotions that I may not even be aware that I’m going through,” says Rooney. (The Times, 2021-08-28)
The character of Alice and what Rooney has said about the drawbacks of success (“I just want my name back. I need it to make dentist appointments.”) had me wondering if she will write another book. I was reminded of Donna Tartt, whose 1992 book The Secret History received the same kind of accolades that Rooney has. After the success of her first book, Tartt wrote a few short stories, but did not publish another novel until The Little Friend (2003) and followed by the Pulitzer-Prize winning title The Goldfinch (2013). The comparisons go further: Tartt does not use social media and is a self-confessed “lone wolf.” Her writing influences, like Rooney’s, are 19th century novelists. I was also reminded of Douglas Coupland, who captured the voice of young adults in Generation X, published in 1991. That book popularized the initialization of generations – Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z. Rooney may be the writer people refer to as the one who captured the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, in the same way. Finally, if you have read Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan tetralogy, the friendship between the main characters will be familiar, as will the author’s reticence.
In Hamlet, Polonius delivers his advice to Laertes as his son is returning to school: “The friends thou hast, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.” The interactions between Alice and Eileen are limited to the lengthy emails they exchange, because they don’t see each other for the first 2/3 of the book. When they finally meet again, they cling to one other, “their eyes closed tight, their arms wrapped around one another…[as if they were] somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper…the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world” (p 250). Ultimately, for me, Sally Rooney’s books are about the beauty of friendship.