The satisfaction of small pleasures

The most anticipated book of the year, a Booker Prize nominee and a posthumous release: John Self on three new, big releases this month

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

What happens when a writer who chronicles modern life becomes a part of it? We’re about to find out, now that “the new Sally Rooney” no longer refers to a person, but a book. We may not be quite in the territory of The Testaments or The Mirror and the Light, but Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, may be the most anticipated novel of the year, after Normal People gave her the sort of extra-literary success that most writers think they’d love to have.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, (Faber & Faber, £16.99)

I am, if not a Rooneymaniac, certainly a Rooneyphile, admiring her previous novels for their wit, their bold coolness and the way they give painful new life to writing about relationships. But, as Alice or Eileen in the new book might wonder, what else is there? They, along with Felix and Simon, are two corners of the irregular Irish quadrilateral that makes up Beautiful World.

Alice is, I’m afraid, a novelist in her late twenties, who wrote two books that made her lots of money and hasn’t started her third yet. “What are your books about?” asks Felix, a warehouse worker, as they endure an awkward first date. “Oh, I don’t know,” she replies. “People.” Meanwhile, Eileen, who works at a literary magazine and is very clever (she reads late Henry James — The Golden Bowl — with unadulterated pleasure: “Have you ever read such a juicy novel??”), is stuck between two pasts: her ex-boyfriend Aidan and her — slightly creepy, to be honest — childhood friend Simon.

She is not (just) doing something new, but doing the only thing she can

For most of the novel the chapters alternate between what I’ll refer to as the doings of Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon, and emails that Alice and Eileen send to one another. In the emails, Alice and Eileen chew over questions of how to live with record-breaking solipsism. Is it possible, say, to buy a lunchtime meal deal bearing in mind “the misery and degradation of almost everyone else on earth”? (That depends: have they any Wispas left?) Why do “identity categories” lead us to expect that “victims are transcendently good and oppressors are personally evil”? (Can you tell Rooney recently deleted her Twitter account?)

It’s in these emails that Alice expresses herself; in person, not so much. With Felix she’s reticent, and even though the awkward date does go somewhere eventually (Rooney is always very good on the power balances of romance), her voiced enthusiasm rarely rises above a Bartleby-esque “I don’t mind.” When we learn that, at the time Eileen first met her, Alice “had a very loud speaking voice” and “seemed to find everything hilarious”, we wonder what happened.

Alice resembles Marianne in Normal People — a bright, wealthy, unhappy young woman in a relationship with a working-class man — though Marianne never complained about the lot of the “celebrity novelist.” Alice dislikes doing interviews, and says that novels like her own (and by extension Rooney’s) “make me want to be sick”, but she can find nothing else worth doing. This is all entertaining (the book is mostly a charm to read — who else could make a line like “When the burgers arrived, they tasted normal” so funny?), if no more edifying than The Beatles whining about “Mr Heath” and “Mr Wilson” on Taxman.

For Alice, for Eileen, the only consolation in a world that just doesn’t work is people. “The meaning of life remains the same as always,” writes Eileen, “to live and be with other people.” And “I love that about humanity — [that] we are so stupid about each other.” Lines like these stand out because the style is otherwise so carefully muted. It veers between the vague (“she opened a messaging app”) and the super-precise (“at five thirty-four p.m.”), in a way that seems to aid the author rather than the story: otherwise at least one character would at one point have been reading or watching Normal People.

The title, however, is positively baroque next to Rooney’s previous choices. It comes from a Friedrich Schiller poem, and the characters are interested in the Schilleresque question of whether aesthetic beauty can be linked to morality. This meta-interest in the purpose and creation of art isn’t limited to Alice and Eileen’s emails. The epigraph to the novel — the first thing we see — is by Natalia Ginzburg: “When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. […] But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know that. But it doesn’t matter much to me.”

And as that implies, the answer to the question What is the new Sally Rooney like? is Very much like the last Sally Rooney. She is, it turns out, not (just) doing something new, but doing the only thing she can. She is writing “whatever comes into my head, to the best of my ability,” she said in an interview to promote this novel. It will not win her any new fans, and some existing fans will think, “Ah. This again.” But it doesn’t matter much, as nobody else does it quite so well. I was once told about a visual artist who would begin a work trembling with the sense of possibilities and new paths, but when the piece was finished, would find that “it’s just me again.” Beautiful World, Where Are You is just Sally Rooney again — and that is no small pleasure.

Richard Powers became an overnight success after 30 years, when his 2018 novel The Overstory — his twelfth — won the Pulitzer Prize. (In this he has the advantage over Sally Rooney, of not having to do his growing up in public.) His admirers will not be surprised to learn that his new novel, the Booker-shortlisted Bewilderment, is science-focused, though they may be surprised to learn that it’s only 270 pages long, about half his usual heft.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers, (Hutchinson Heinemann, £18.99)

The relative brevity and focus of the book gives it the feel almost of a chamber piece, and it’s largely a two-hander between narrator Theo Byrne and his nine-year-old son, Robin. Theo is an astrobiologist who uses spectroscopy to “visit” other planets, “combing their atmospheres for the slightest signs of anything breathing”. And he’s a widower, who wants to help Robin deal with his anger. The surprising solution comes from Decoded Neurofeedback, a type of AI intervention that lets the boy train his brain to the right emotional state.

The success of the story — and a success it is — comes from the human story between father and son

This close-scale drama is embedded in a larger landscape inspired by recent events (novels are getting nearer and nearer: and just wait until you see all the Covid fiction coming later this year). So we have a tweaked Trump (“only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war”), an analogue for Greta Thunberg, and science used as a political football. Yet the success of the story — and a success it is — comes not from the ingenious scientific speculations, nor the shrewd literary connections (on the “emotional telepathy” of a work of art, or Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon), but the human story between father and son, as Theo finds out “how my brain learns to resemble what it loves”.

Scepticism toward posthumous publications is a healthy instinct — especially when you consider the sort of crap some writers publish while they’re still alive — so a “newly discovered novel” by Simone de Beauvoir isn’t one I rushed toward. But The Inseparables outperforms expectations, not least because it isn’t a scrappy draft unfinished at Beauvoir’s death, but a complete novella written in the prime of her writing life, between The Mandarins (1954) and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958).

There are two ways to read The Inseparables. The first is as a standalone story, narrated by Sylvie and telling of her love for her friend Andrée. Andrée is a girl who joins Sylvie’s school and whom the teachers euphemistically describe as having “a lot of personality”, and Sylvie thinks is “one of those prodigies about whom books would be written”. The story takes us through their years of inseparability and beyond, with particular focus on Andrée’s love affairs that are thwarted by her mother, Mme Gallard. It’s charming, atmospheric and riddled with French intellectual and cultural references, helpfully glossed by Lauren Elkin in her translation.

It’s charming, atmospheric and riddled with French intellectual and cultural references

The other reading is as a lightly fictionalised account of Beauvoir’s relationship with Elisabeth “Zaza” Lacoin, already well known to her readers and woven into Memoirs (“I loved Zaza with an intensity which could not be accounted for by any established set of rules and conventions”), but here given its own focus. This, indeed, seems to be why Beauvoir didn’t publish it in her lifetime (discouraged further by Sartre): “too intimate”, we’re told. On this reading, the supplementary material — introduction, preface, afterword, archive material — forms an essential and generous part of the whole work. But either way, on reading this story of “all the transports of my soul” and the inevitable tragedy that results, one can but ask: “Have you ever read such a juicy novel??”

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