13 September 2021

Sally Rooney: Queen of the whining millennials


Other than impressing girls, there’s no real reason for someone like me to read Sally Rooney. For millennial women, the Irish author and self-proclaimed Marxist is a prophet. To clutch a copy of her latest book means declaring you are at odds with our decadent age, a hopeless romantic conscious of the impossibility of true love under late capitalism. Being neither a woman, nor millennial, I’m hardly the target market. As a Generation Zer, I’m tired of Rooney’s shtick – she is the depressing face of all the worst qualities of our millennial forebears.

My only personal encounter with late capitalism is via ageing lefties droning on about it at parties – an experience not dissimilar from reading one of Rooney’s books. Nevertheless, I attempted Normal People during the first lockdown. The television adaptation was providing singletons everywhere with the horizontal jogging from which the state had banned us. I hoped to impress a female acquaintance by hopping on the bandwagon. The tortuous romance, endless self-analysis, and remorseless bonking of two young Irish intellectuals wasn’t my usual bedtime read. But Rooney clearly had talent, despite her pretentious prose and political posturing. It didn’t aid my wooing, but piqued my curiosity enough to pick up her new release Beautiful World, Where are You?

Despite sounding like a cross between a Kirsty MacColl album and an episode of Scooby-Doo, it is not a success. It highlights not only her shortcomings as a writer, but the failings of the narcissistic age of which she is a figurehead. Straight off, anyone who has read Normal People, or her first novel Conversations with Friends, has already read this latest effort. Contemporary Ireland pays host to the parallel romances of four young people. Two of them are impossibly clever, aspiring writers who email each other about the iniquities of free markets, the Bronze Age collapse, and writers that make critics coo and make me groan. It’s cringe-worthy stuff: not just because of the pompous nature of their discussions, but the fact they’re done by email. Any Zoomer knows that voice notes were invented for a reason.

To stay relevant, Rooney has her authorial stand-in character (best-selling novelist Alice) woo a warehouse worker, Felix. His tragedy is that he is far too bright to be jobbing in some Amazon hellhole. This allows Rooney to simultaneously virtue-signal her loathing for corporate exploitation and be a snob at the same time. Eventually they sod off to Italy together, proving any millennial anxiety can be cured by a Gap Yah. Meanwhile, jobbing journalist Eileen finds herself bonding with childhood crush Simon through social media stalking and phone sex. Rooney obsesses herself with social media, having characters observe each other via Facebook, Tinder, and Instagram at length. But their use of it betrays the novelty which millennials still attach to these services, as if it’s still a big thing to contact someone via a digital platform. Generation Z know nothing else: there’s no need for the hand-wringing, Sally, we’re too busy updating our stories. Add complaints about Conservatives, endless introspection, and dangerous passions, and that’s about all there is to Conversations with Beautiful Friends, Normal are You?

Of course, it’s readable. Rooney couldn’t have shifted so many copies unless she could write. Then again, so did EL James. Perhaps explicit sex really is the route to literary success. This book is nominally a meditation on the problems of literary success. In that respect it reminds me of Fame, the 1975 hit single by David Bowie and John Lennon centred on two very talented, very wealthy musicians complaining to the proles about how awful it is getting the best seats in restaurants. Beautiful World, Where are You? is a similar exercise in celebrity self-pity, channelled through millennial myopia.

One can sympathise with Rooney for having been thrust into the spotlight at such an early age. Alice, the novelist, complains of ‘our shallow self-congratulatory “book culture”‘ that drove her to a nervous breakdown. One hardly wants to join a pile on, but when it comes to Rooney, there isn’t one. Her reception has been overwhelmingly positive. From being Europe’s leading teenage debater, to conquering the bestsellers’ lists and the TV screen in short succession, she has achieved successes that most thirty-year-olds would be overjoyed with. A few photo shoots and interviews here and there are hardly the worst price to pay.

But Rooney wants to have her cake and eat it. She says she loathes individualism, but this book represents it at its worst. Not the rapacious market capitalism she decries, but overweening millennial narcissism. Rooney makes a public display of how much she loathes a rigged system, whilst doing very well out of it indeed. For all her clever prose, she still has the worst qualities of a generation raised on Harry Potter. Everything is a Manichean battle between good and evil, with right-wing baddies always at the door and a belief that virtue, love, and playing with wands wins out in the end. It is of a piece with Buzzfeed, ‘girl bosses’, and pronouns in bios.

As a Generation Zer, I do fear we might follow in millennials’ footsteps. We may have cancelled JK Rowling, but we still eat enough avocado toast and rack up enough student debt to ape their worse qualities. But unlike millennials, we’ve really had it tough: we’re the ones who lost eighteen months (and counting) to Covid. Whereas Sally Rooney has become the first great novelist of her generation by riffing on petty insecurities, the first Angry Young Man, Woman or Person of No Fixed Gender of Generation Z will really have something to complain about. All the while, Rooney will go on making a mint from a system she abhors, trotting out bittersweet tales of copulating Irish students. And I’ll still buy them, since I’m crap on Tinder, and it might yet impress a girl.

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William Atkinson is a recent graduate and freelance writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.