‘If serious political action is still possible, which I think at this point is an open question, maybe it won’t involve people like us—in fact I think it almost certainly won’t.
One of the protagonists in Sally Rooney’s latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You emails this thought to the other. It is the email correspondence between two twenty-nine-year-old Marxists, Alice and Eileen, that provides the intellectual skeleton for the romantic narrative between them and their male lovers, Simon and Felix. The novel explores the inner life of characters who know the world is broken but who, more than anything, struggle to articulate what is it about our lives that gives us a reason to live on.
Rooney’s characters try and fail to take control of their lives and relationships, to locate and communicate the value and meaning in sustaining their life with others while conditioned by the inequality and domination of capitalism. The novel occupies the tension between political attitudes—the ability to imagine if meaningful political action is possible—and the nature of a normative life. The characters are caught between their explicit critique of political conformism and their inability to escape the alienated norms that binds them to passivity and personal conformism. The tension explored in this book is that for people like us, both political and personal life can be broken at the very same time.
Rooney’s ability to capture the insecurities of contemporary and young romance has garnered global popularity, and Beautiful World, Where Are You is a major event in this year’s popular fiction releases. Readers and critics have praised her ability to write modern love and to depict an emotional fragility that is relatable and real to many young people.
Less discussed and much less understood, however, is Rooney’s interest in the social background that informs her foreground drama. Many critics have drawn attention to an apparent paradox in her politics: how can ‘the voice of millennials’, someone who writes popular and much hyped novels concerned with love and modern forms of technology have such outdated and ‘old-fashioned’ politics?
Rooney’s explicitly Marxist politics are interesting not so much because she injects virtuous working-class characters into her works (sometimes Felix feels a bit like this) but because she grounds the notion of modern love itself by evoking insights from Marx. Rooney’s Marxism creates characters who struggle to make sense of their emotions and control their inner life, at the same time as they reflect on the existence of social class and the fetishism of commodities.
Beautiful World, Where Are You puts these problems explicitly at the centre of the narrative: the characters relate to each other as Marxists and the social dynamics they inhabit are shot through with class. Reading the politics of Rooney’s novels articulates a central problem of modern life: our personal anxieties and insecurities as individuals are always intricately part of the estrangement and disenchantment of the modern social world. As her characters reflect on a world rapidly crumbling around them, Rooney asks if love can survive capitalism, but never presumes she can answer this question. That’s a question left for us.
‘I’ve been thinking lately about right-wing politics (haven’t we all)’, Alice emails Eileen. She continues: ‘how it is that conservatism (the social force) came to be associated with rapacious market capitalism.’ In the exchange, Rooney puts in Alice’s mouth an analysis of ‘social relations’ as she apologises to her friend for being ‘extremely rudimentary’ and ‘un-dialectical’.
The word ‘social relations’ does quite a bit of work here. Rooney is writing a book that explores complex characters as they interact in intimate social relationships, but she is also telling us that ‘social relations’ carries its Marxist meaning as a relation of class. The reference to dialectics can be seen as a comment on the difficulty of writing a ‘Marxist novel’ that avoids the traditional tropes of heroic striking workers; morality tales that please the heart of the ideological by personifying class typologies and reducing the drama to an accompanying tale of class personification. Instead, Beautiful World, Where Are You is a book about the tension between the political claims of the author and the demands of our lives as lovers and friends in a world that is hostile and crumbling.
In the email quoted above, Rooney’s character thinks through the process of capitalist exploitation, poverty and waste as she looks to buy lunch in a local shop. Not only does Rooney make clear the Marxist claim that inequality is systematically structured in capitalist production and exchange, but her characters also reflect on the nature of the commodity itself. Rather than making their lives freer, still having to buy lunch presents the inescapabilty of a type of domination by things. Marx describes this as ‘commodity fetishism’ and it is one of his most valuable thoughts, providing his account of capitalist society with an explanation of how human beings become unfree as a result of the alienation of their life activity. According to Marx, capitalism robs human beings of the free control of our activity, since to survive the vast majority of us must sell our time to work for someone else. Commodities are made as goods and services to be sold on a market, in a process which objectifies the human activity necessary to create the commodity. Things created by human beings take on an objective power over us.
Eileen’s reply to Alice echoes this point. She is aware that the immense collection of commodities that confronts her in the convenience shop are artefacts of human despair and immiseration, often damaging to the environment. Eileen remarks that she relies upon these commodities to live, adding:
I don’t even think they improve my life. They just create waste and make me unhappy anyway. (Not that I’m comparing my dissatisfaction to the misery of actually oppressed peoples, I just mean that the lifestyle they sustain for us is not even satisfying, in my opinion.)
Regardless of whatever immediate benefit consumer choice might be offered to the individual consumer, Eileen points to something much more existential in the fabric of capitalism. Commodities promise a false happiness since the conditions of human existence is one of alienation. You may have the privilege to choose who makes profit from your waking life but, as Marx reminds us, this is not much of a choice at all. In Rooney’s writing, mundane and trivial moments like buying a sandwich are posed to show that exchange relations express a specific social form of domination.
In an article in the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen conveys his annoyance at the sentiment of this discussion, while entirely missing the critical point. Lorentzen claims there is a
latent sadism and vanity at play in imagining that whole populations are being ground to death so that you may be served a sandwich or whatever. This is exultation disguised as renunciation: the world perishing in the service of a princess walking over corpses to the till at Marks & Spencer.
What makes this critique so shallow is that Lorentzen never asks what the point Rooney is trying to make actually is. Instead, he takes her politics as yet another clichéd literary trend of dissatisfied millennials.
A scene in the book that has attracted particular scorn from reviewers involves an argument at a pub about the existence of class. Critics who charge this debate about class as forced and unbelievable might simply have resolved that question for themselves or further still, never actually asked it. By contrast, anyone concerned with class as a condition of our day to day interactions with others will have had a pub dispute quite like Rooney’s.
Eileen moves commas around in a low-paying job at a literary journal. Felix moves boxes around at a warehouse. The cultural impact of the division between the head and the hand runs through the novel. Through Alice, Rooney seems to enjoy satirising the culture industry. Again and again, the characters point to the emptiness of art created and driven by profit and the confusion of status and beauty with ‘real aesthetic experience’ (it is no coincidence the title of the novel is a quote from Schiller). Alice’s success as an author is contrasted with her failure to communicate with those immediately around her. For Alice, her novels are not validated by how much they sell, and it is their success that brings her into crisis. She loses something of herself in the objectification of her own self-expression. Her relationship with Felix highlights that Alice needs something external from the falseness of the culture industry to provide internal meaning. Our relationships with others allow us to identify in ourselves what makes our lives worth living.
Dismissing Rooney’s characters as ‘vapid’ ignores the tension in their political and personal identification. By ruling out the anxieties that define their interactions and concerns, the political issues raised by the novel are also cheapened. Rooney is challenging the reader to understand her characters in political terms, as actors who understand themselves explicitly as Marxists.
It is a challenge, since as we discover though the book, she gives political opinion the same importance as religious faith. This is especially interesting since the two central female characters are more uncertain about religion than they are about politics. The two Marxists are not involved in political activity. The only character who is, Simon, a functionary for a left-wing parliamentary group, is remarkable not for his political activity but instead for his religious beliefs. His Catholicism is a subject of confusion, not just for its incompatibility with his womanising but for the possibility of some divine force that can live insulated from our broken world and offer protection. Alice and Eileen struggle with Simon’s faith not because it appears ridiculous after the death of God but because the possibility that God offers an answer to the question of serious political action is ridiculous. This is Simon’s problem. He is caught between his profession in politics trying to effect change and the alternative, a desire for the pure and virtuous, a life in the clergy. Simon’s life is in this contradiction. He is unable to enact change and instead settles with his personal life.
For Alice and Eileen, faith is posed as a way out of doubt, as something that could ground their lives and organise their worldview. But if the appeal of faith is providing a firm position in the world, neither take it to be a serious solution.
The problem that animates Beautiful World, Where Are You is of a life suspended in unknowing how to be either political or to love. Rooney is not denying that either is possible, but she is writing characters who do not know how to do both. Like Connell and Marianne in Normal People, Eileen and Simon have difficulty not in loving the other, but in communicating that love.
Rooney’s characters shift between modes of written communication constantly. Rooney crafts this with great skill, taking advantage of the dependence of our communication on screens and algorithms. Her characters punctuate their lives—at work and at home—to scroll through social media, their fingers and eyes moving at the same pace through world-historic political issues and people posting selfies with their cats. Of course, her readers will have the same interruptions when reading Beautiful World, Where Are You. Rooney’s depiction of a contemporary form of emotional communication does note that our eyes have become accustomed to scrolling and waiting for the next small vibration. Much is made in the informal modes, like text messages. Here the fingers of Rooney’s characters hover over their phone screens thinking and overthinking what to type. They often retype texts, observe the ellipses that appear in messaging apps when someone else is typing, or delete the thought altogether.
Rooney’s interest is in characters who write to each other to convey both their dreams, fears and desires and to make small, seemingly insignificant jokes. In this way, the emails are not merely essays in Rooney’s voice, but windows into the lives of her characters—constructing their political and personal voices on the same html page with the same timestamp. Rooney’s characters often write because it allows them to speak when they can’t express their troubles and reflections in any other way.
The problem of communication highlights why the novel’s ending is not a celebration of bourgeois family values, as some critics claim. The sudden contentment experienced by the characters, if taken at face value, would render the political and personal anxieties at stake throughout the novel redundant—as if Rooney were endorsing the personal retreat of her characters behind their veil of self-proclaimed happiness. But are we seriously supposed to believe Eileen’s triumphal letter to Alice? That her declaration of a happy life, in marriage and property, is sincere? Hardly. If it was, the story might as well not have been told.