The Ten Books of Christmas: Between Christmas and New Year’s FlaglerLive customarily reduces production. It helps us, and no doubt you, exhausted reader, to take a break from outrage and lurid politics. This year I’m doing something a little different. Instead of only running the usual end-of year sum-ups and fillers, I’m launching the Byblos column and offering the Ten Books of Christmas: every day I’m publishing an original piece of mine on one of the books of the year I found most notable—books old and new, fiction and nonfiction, whether inspired by covid, confinement, covfefe or just the libidinous, inebriating pleasure of reading. No doubt only six or seven readers out there are interested in this sort of thing. That's OK. They’re ignored the rest of the year, so this is for them. I hope they find these, ahem, brief reflections (rather than reviews) at least a little provocative. The days' installments are listed below.
The young, argumentative and Irish Sally Rooney is among the rising lights of English-language literature. She’s giving the novel of ideas a boost. The impulse her works command reminds me of the old E.F. Hutton commercials: “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.”
The comparison to an investment banking firm may be anachronistic. Rooney is not a cheerleader of capitalism, though her three novels to date–one of which, Normal People, was gorgeously adapted into a 12-part series for Hulu–have made her interestingly rich. Class consciousness is among the dialectical pistons of her novels, so she may have a problem on her hands if she keeps getting richer. Her talent suggests she will. But her novels are her therapy. One of the four characters forming the small world of her last–Beautiful World, Where Are You, published in September–is a writer who’s unexpectedly made it big and become rich after having issues with, among many, many other things, wealth. Fame makes it worse.
You’re not meant to miss the parallels with Rooney and the success she enjoyed with Normal People, otherwise she wouldn’t have smacked you in the face with them. Smack she does, not with the best result this time. It’s rarely attractive when people agonize over their own wealth even by proxy, or devise clumsy means to mitigate it. People uncomfortable with too much wealth start foundations.
Alice Kelleher, the famous writer-character in Beautiful World’s quartet of characters, has a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in New York before returning to an isolated manion a few hours from Dublin. She then uses an app to find a working class boyfriend who works in an Amazon-like packaging and distribution center. She manipulates him and her own feelings to feel better, using him in the early goings as a traveling concubine, for companionship or to figure things out. The line between Alice manipulating Felix–and vice versa, soon enough–and Rooney manipulating her characters, or her readers, thins quickly as Rooney’s authorial presence intrudes more obviously than we’re used to. It feels forced.
It’s not a bad novel. It’s more ambitious than the first two, but not as convincing. Rooney could write a bad novel. It would still be beautiful, because her prose is. She writes with so much clarity and certainty that you feel like she’s grabbing your lapel, LBJ-style, and leaning into you with her story. You can’t get away. Unlike with LBJ (from what Robert Caro has told us), you don’t want to get away. It’s as if she’s transformed the trashy page-turning beach novel into a weird kind of stewing intelligence, with a little contempt for old conventions.
Quote marks are beneath her. Adjectives and metaphors are beneath her. Plot, too (and unfortunately in this third novel, so is character development.) Inevitably her spareness has drawn comparisons with Raymond Carver, who she said has influenced her. It doesn’t do her justice. Carver pulled off some good short stories but often got lost in his attempts to be the next Hemingway when one Hemingway was more than enough. She gives the impression that comparisons mean nothing to her, competition even less, even though for a time in college she was the top-ranked debater in Europe. She quit when she didn’t like what she was becoming, though when she wrote that she “wanted to be aloof and cerebral like the speakers I most admired,” she could have been describing her novel’s voice.
Her Alice character doesn’t like what she’s become as a novelist. Her life is as lukewarm as the plastic bottles she gets at public readings and during interviews. She devotes a long essay in the form of an email to her observations about modern novelists, whom she can’t read because she sees their shallowness at conferences, moaning about reviews and writing about big themes they know nothing about. She gives herself a disclaimer: “My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard. For this reason I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again.” You’re not certain this is entirely Alice writing, considering Rooney’s precedent of quitting when on top, but don’t fall into that vulgar trap of confusing novelist with character: It’s unfair to the novelist and almost always a misreading, at least of unshallow writers.
She began with Conversations With Friends, a novel the BBC is adapting for the screen and launching on Hulu next year in hopes of repeating the success of Normal People. Rooney’s hero in Conversation is a bisexual aspiring writer who used to sleep with her best friend Bobbi but now limits her most intimate interactions with her to the spoken poetry they perform together on stage. They meet Melissa, a glamorous reporter who, with her good looking but drifting husband Nick, are magnets to both women for different reasons.
Frances has reflections like this: “Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.” But how tense she makes the not happening. It’s not the originality of what happens next that has you absorbed–the set-up is as ordinary as it gets–but the way Rooney makes a Rosetta stone of the relationships, the hieroglyphs shaping into meaning from page to page. You also get explicit lines like “I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive,” which recur, with variations, in all three novels: she’s still a debater.
Normal People is the role-reversing story of Marianne and Connell. Marianne is from a family comfortable enough to have a maid but its members are mutually embittered. There’s zero affection and plenty of antagonisms (father, now dead, used to beat mother, brother is a wife-beater in the making. Marianne tiptoes.). Connell is the son of the maid. He’s the popular extrovert who ignores her at school even though they’re secretly dating, she’s the one with no friends whom people hate and who reads novels, but who in college turns into the extrovert who ignores Connell. Normal People is often on the verge of a romance novel. Marianne (and Rooney) work hard to prevent it: “They had never talked, for example, about the fact that her mother paid his mother money to scrub their floors and hang their laundry, or about the fact that this money circulated indirectly to Connell, who spent it, as often as not, on Marianne.” But of the three books it is the most affectionate and least affected.
The most affected is Beautiful People. (The title is from a brief and mournful poem Schiller wrote in 1788 and Schubert set to music when he was 13. The poem is more mournful than the novel, Schubert’s rendition even more so.) Rooney again dispenses with quote marks when her characters speak, an affectation that makes you wonder after a time: why? It’s not a big deal. You could ask the same questions of the use of quote marks, which can seem extraneous after a few hundred years of practice. But there doesn’t seem to be a purpose behind the trick. It’s not as if the characters’ conversations are fogged in memory, or that Rooney is trying to tell us how less reliable what they say may be. That’s just how she likes to quote her characters’ dialogues, without quotes. Maybe it’s more of a bother in this novel because there’s less purpose in the characters’ affectations. You care about them less than any of Rooney’s creations, the main character included–if not especially–so you start nit-picking.
As in Conversations, Rooney returns to a quartet of characters–Couple A, Couple B, with various interactions. Couple A is Alice Kelleher (the rich and famous writer) who likes “taking recalcitrant local boys out on dates,” cries all the time (off screen), finds her life difficult, and settles on Felix, the working class boyfriend. All the others read Anna Karenina. He’s illiterate. He’s Rooney’s idea of the noble savage adapted to millennials, though he tends to be more of a brute than a savage. I have no idea what keeps those two emotional debaters together. The relationship makes no sense, not because of their odd-fitting backgrounds, which should have been a plus, but because they don’t like each other most of the time. Felix actually tells his dog, referring to Alice: “You have a lot in common with her, you know. You’re both in love with me.”
Half of Couple B is Alice’s best friend Eileen Lydon, an editor. The other half is Simon, five years older than Eileen, used to be a farmhand at Eileen’s place, when Eileen had a crush on him. He seems to have a thing for underage girls, though the subject is never quite fleshed out. They’re not an actual couple for the near-totality of the novel, just two binary stars that can’t get away from each other but seem incapable of committing, either, even though the matter appears settled pretty early on. He likes her, she likes him, get together already. The difficulties in the relationship are ridiculously contrived. She sees in Simon machinations and cheating. She should be the novelist. Nothing Simon does gives the impression that he’s anything but accommodating, in love, willing to do whatever is necessary to win her over. He’s actually a bit of a patsy, blandly sweet, sensitive, strictly Antioch-rules abiding when fucking. If his church-going is intended to give him depth, it doesn’t translate. Eileen isn’t religious but with him loves the church-going. Her insecurities will wear you out, as they almost do Simon.
Half the novel is in the form of an epistolary novel. Every other chapter (out of 30) is an email, or rather an essay, alternating between Alice and Eileen, though you could mistake their voices for each other’s. The comparison here is not Carver but Richardson or Rousseau, who used their epistolary novels as lecture series. I might have been tolerant of Eileen’s and Alice’s mini-essays on the collapse of Bronze civilization, Jesus without the deification, making a living “from something as definitionally useless as art,” traditional marriage as “a sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life,” or the question: “Why should anyone be rich and famous while other people live in desperate poverty?” Each might have been a proposition at a debate. “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,” Eileen tells Alice. (“Epistemically violent”? Really?) But in the end, all these four seem to do is invest in trivialities, which reduces the mini-essays to random thoughts jammed in so Rooney can live up to her reputation as a novelist of ideas. It’s more hill of beans than Magic Mountain.
As so much of this is window dressing for the characters’ self-absorption and actual disconnect from the world around them, if not from each other, I’m not sure I care, even as Rooney lubricates the chapters with explicit sex–so much more of it in Beautiful People than in her previous volumes. Nothing is spare in these scenes, or spared, and that, for all the deftness of Rooney’s eroticism (imagine if Ansel Adams photographed sex) manages to get repetitive, or derivative. For all its seeming inventiveness the extended phone-sex scene between Eileen and Simon reads like a remake of Nicholson Baker’s Vox.
For all that the novel is still a page-turner, mostly because it’s Rooney, because you keep expecting something to emerge out of the chaos, and because she still poses the riddle of relationships with enough cliffhangers to make you stay. Not everything EF Hutton said was worth it, either, but you couldn’t afford to miss a thing. In this case I just wish the characters were a bit more bearable, their flaws a bit further away from their navels.
William Maxwell in 1974 wrote “Over By the River,” a plotless, cerebral story about a middle class Manhattan family whose purpose for living seems just a little beside itself. It’s not alienation exactly. It’s something undiagnosed, though Schubert’s song would go well with it. These lines from the story could have appeared as a summary blurb on Beautiful World’s dust jacket: “People you have known for twenty or thirty years, you suddenly discover you didn’t really know how they felt about you, and in fact you don’t know how anybody feels about anything–only what they say they feel. And suppose that isn’t true at all? You decide that it is better to act as if it is true. And so does everybody else. But it is a kind of myth you are living in, wide awake, with your eyes open, in broad daylight.”
Rooney’s characters have known each other many fewer years and are much younger than Maxwell’s. Maybe because Rooney’s millennials are so much smarter, they’re discovering the myth sooner. You just wish they were a bit less self-absorbed. The world of the title seems to be missing from their rather narrow horizons.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.