I tried to dislike the writing of Sally Rooney. But I failed. I retain some resistance to Sally Rooney the cultural phenomenon, because this is largely about television adaptations of her books, which can only accentuate the negatives. I have an old-fashioned view of these things: only literature can represent a glamorous world with nuance, real satire, barbed detachment; the interiority of writer and reader is a counterweight to the allure of worldly things.
The adaptation of her first novel, Conversations With Friends, which begins this weekend, is unlikely to challenge my view. It might, for example, attempt to show that Nick is vain and selfish as well as handsome and amazing at sex, but handsome and amazing at sex will win. It might attempt to show that Bobbi is a gobby prat as well as a charismatic beauty, but charismatic beauty will win. It might attempt to show that Frances gets a bit interested in religion, but this doesn’t explicitly affect the sex plot so it might not even bother.
But let’s stick to the actual writing. I found it easy enough at first to resist its charms. Conversations With Friends, despite the sparkling talent on display, felt dismissible as a sassy adultery novel: slick, with-it chick-lit. And I suppose, to be exposingly honest, I bristled a bit at its gender-specific aura of spiritual depth. It seemed to reflect a problematic orthodoxy of our day: that only a female voice, or maybe a gay one, is entitled to dabble in religiosity, for the inner life must be rooted in bodily adversity and underdog status. A straight male voice that veers into religious seeking is not culturally kosher.
Normal People confirmed the impression: her writing is witty, edgy, and sexy, but has no real depth, just the ability to push certain buttons labelled ‘depth’ by our culture. I was a Rooney-sceptic.So when, last autumn, her third novel, Beautiful World Where Are You, was published to very much hype, I had a sullen intention to dislike it. I heard some of it on the radio and it felt like more of the same, but more so. One of the radio excerpts touched on religion: the sassy young novelist narrator found herself drawn to the figure of Jesus. This did not dent my sullen stance. It seemed to me that religion just played the role of the handsome priest in Fleabag: something that makes a sassy young woman sassier still, another string to her super-sophisticated bow, another proof that she can’t be boxed.
In the run-up to Christmas, my teenage daughter expressed an interest in receiving the novel. Not from me she wouldn’t. Then I read it (someone else gave it to her). And my Rooney-scepticism crumbled. I discovered that Rooney’s interest in religion is substantial and impressively free-spirited. Why was this not mentioned in any of the reviews that I had sullenly read? The average review probably mentioned religion while summarising the plot, but left it at that, guided by the assumption that Rooney embodies millennial sophistication, of which secularism is a natural part.
The story centres on two literary-minded young women who exchange long emails about their lives. They share a vague sense that the world is in such a mess that they should be more politically active, and less self-obsessed. Then religion intrudes, in the form of Eileen’s on-off boyfriend Simon, who is a practising Catholic. In one email she relates accompanying him to Mass. She is bemused that there is another side to him, one that she is excluded from, as she finds religion absurd.
This prompts Alice, who so far seems just as secular-minded, to show a surprising interest in religion. She tells her friend that she wandered into a local church while visiting Rome ‘and cried a few picturesque tears about the nobility of Jesus’. Though not a believer she has a sort of love for him, for his embodiment of ‘a kind of moral beauty’. But instead of filling her with spiritual peace, ‘the example set by Jesus only makes my existence seem trivial and shallow in comparison. In public I’m always talking about care ethics and the value of human community, but in my real life I don’t take on the work of caring for anyone except myself.’ Religion is presented not as a distraction from politics (the standard progressive assumption), but as in tune with Alice’s pained sense of impossible political idealism, and perhaps underlying it.
In a further email, Alice wonders whether disinterested love makes any sense outside of ‘the Christian mindset’. Isn’t their atheism at odds with their social idealism? Maybe it is no real basis for ‘the things that you and I say we believe. That some experiences of beauty are serious and others trivial. Or that some things are right and others wrong.’ By now the reader has a new sense of Alice: not as a self-obsessed young intellectual trendsetter, but as a rather intense and isolated figure, trying to resist trendiness and think for herself.
Eileen is less philosophically troubled, but she negotiates similar territory through her relationship with Simon. She is getting used to the idea of being with a religious believer, and slightly recalibrates her secular assumptions. She is acknowledging the appeal of his moral solidity, even though it is ideologically questionable, as religion is the refuge of reactionaries and neurotics. There is a little echo of Pride and Prejudice in that love disrupts her previous sense of self. The realm of self-righteous opinion is bested by the fuller existential reality of desire, in which sexual desire is mixed up with the desire for stability and meaning.
I felt a little shaking of the ground under my feet: had Sally Rooney, the epitome of sassy secular edge, become a subtly religious writer? Maybe she always was, and my own pride and prejudice led me to assume otherwise.
I re-read Conversations With Friends: maybe its interest in religion was also more substantial than I had first noticed. It’s a rather tawdry tale of a student and her friend getting involved with a trendy older couple. The narrator, Frances, has an affair with the man, a charming vapid actor. Her voice is compellingly detached, unnerved, kooky, faux-naive, in search of authenticity. Though aware of Nick’s moral weakness, she still seeks authenticity in the affair, in its physical intensity. And it’s here, surprisingly, that religion intrudes.
When the affair seems to have ended she retreats to her mum’s house where she browses a Bible and reads Jesus’s comments on marriage, that ‘man and wife are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let no man separate. I felt pretty low when I read that part. I put away the Bible, but it didn’t help.’ This desire to be ‘one flesh’ is picked up on when the affair resumes: he touches her breast ‘like he owned it’; and in the throes of passion she feels her body is entirely at his disposal. ‘It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn’t try to stop him. When I described this to him he said he felt the same, but he was sleepy and he might not really have been listening.’
I have mixed feelings about the novelistic mixing of sex and religion. I used to love John Updike’s books, with their awkwardly religious (male) protagonists finding spiritual illumination in illicit sex. But it began to feel facile, formulaic, male-gazey. I can hardly believe I’m writing it, but there’s more depth in Rooney’s treatment of the theme. Frances wants, from sexual love, a sort of religious totality. But she lives in our culture, where the possibility of this is tainted. It’s a brilliant ambiguity, the sense of him owning her breast: is she one flesh with him or his sex toy? She wants their intense sex to be an expression of a wider intensity: it is not clear that he has any understanding of such a desire.
The affair falters again; she has a health crisis and begins self-harming a bit. On a particularly bad day, in great pain, she wanders into a church and sits down. The passage is worth quoting:
“I’m praying, I thought. I’m actually sitting here praying for God to help me. I was. Please help me, I thought. Please. I knew that there were rules about this, that you had to believe in a divine ordering principle before you could appeal to it for anything, and I didn’t. But I make an effort, I thought. I love my fellow human beings. Or do I? … Do I sometimes hurt and harm myself, do I abuse the unearned cultural privilege of whiteness, do I take the labour of others for granted, have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement, do I have a troubled relationship with my body, yes. Do I want to be free of pain and therefore demand that others also live free of pain, the pain that is mine and therefore also theirs, yes, yes.
This is simultaneously a ‘woke’ monologue that borders on self-parody, and, mainly due to its setting, an indictment of the inadequacy of secular moralism. Rooney is issuing an impressive little up-yours to the culture wars, by showing us a young person who experiences progressive morality as binding on her, but who senses that the force of this obligation brings older, awkwarder, less secular things into play: absolutism, perfectionist yearning, painful self-suspicion. It’s an authentic moment of ‘only connect’.
Despite the determined righteous secularism of our literary culture, the fact is that the star novelist of our day is deeply engaged with religion. If she goes any further in this direction she will risk exposure as a Trojan Horse in the citadel of secular letters. But let’s hope she’s not cancelled too soon.