In search of God in Sally Rooney’s novels
Western People 26.10.2021
The novelist, Sally Rooney, Castlebar native and literary sensation of the last few years, is taking the publishing world by storm. Three days after her latest book was published, Beautiful World, Where Are You, it was already the biggest selling novel of 2021. And the oldest and most influential book sales chart in the UK, The Sunday Times Best Seller List, has her at number 3 last week with sales (for the week) of 10,955. Numbers to make even the most successful writers salivate in undisguised envy.
A big question that critics (and other writers) are pondering since Rooney’s extraordinary success with her first three novels is – what’s the formula?
Probably an impossible question to answer.
One part is Rooney’s easy style of writing. Yet even though her writing is deceptively simple as she ‘tells a story’, there’s a subtext of meaning that she’s gradually excavating and that from time to time suddenly comes to the surface to tentatively suggest rather than explain what it all means.
Another reason for her success is that her writing to date has opened a window into a hidden world, what makes her generation tick: the youngsters of Conversation with Friends; the university generation of Normal People and, with Beautiful World, the millennials discovering that not everything is possible and that much of what they imagined they could control is beyond their reach. Like ‘meaning’ or the passing of time and how their freedom is limited.
For parents, Rooney’s three books to date have opened up the changing world their children, teenagers and young adults inhabit. Often parents don’t want to know what their sons or daughters really think or even how they feel, what they believe or don’t believe, and especially what they get up to. Not any more as Rooney unpeels the highs and the lows of probably the most privileged and cossetted generation of young people in the history of Ireland. Now we know the brave new world, the strange landscape – at least strange to older generations – that their children inhabit.
Now they know too.
A third explanation for Rooney’s success is the publicity generated by the television series that brought Normal People to our screens. While she was already well on her way as a successful novelist in her own right, the impressive translation of Normal People to our television screens and the publicity it garnered in the English-speaking world raised her profile exponentially. To such an extent that even if Beautiful People has been a glugger (as we say in the country) it would still have been a worldwide best-seller.
For me one of the features of her first two books is the extraordinary absence of any mention of God, or even religion, in dealing with a culture which, for better or worse, is embedded in a religion sense. For John McGahern, religion was part of the very weather of his life but for Rooney it scarcely seems to exist. This may be a generational thing, as McGahern – though he lived no more than a generation or so before Rooney – inhabited a very different Ireland and in dealing with it omitting the religious impulse would be to ignore a central constituent of the prevailing culture. For Rooney’s generation God has been relegated to the fourth division, out of sight and apparently out of mind.
Been there done that? Not really. God, though He or She doesn’t make a personal experience in Beautiful World is still there or thereabouts.
The main character is Alice, a best-selling young novelist whose success has allowed her to buy a beautiful house, to live a privileged life and to devote herself to her writing. Doing a round of interviews and photo-shoots, she finds herself tired and disoriented and wanders into an empty church. She sat in silence pondering ‘the nobility of Jesus’. She describes her fascination with the ‘personality’ of Jesus, his ‘attraction’ and ‘closeness’ to her, embodying as he does ‘a kind of moral beauty’. She doesn’t believe in his resurrection and yet he says ‘the kind of things’ that couldn’t really emanate ‘from any other consciousness’. It is as close as she comes to thinking of Jesus as God. She has ‘a strong liking for and affection’ for Jesus and feels moved when she contemplates his life and death but ‘that’s all’.
As a backdrop to her pondering Alice compares the life she lives – an existence ‘trivial and shallow’ in comparison to the example set by Jesus – and less meaningful than her parents’ generation, and wonders whether when her generation tore down what they believed confined them (like traditional marriage) ‘what did we have in mind to replace it?’
Alice questions whether her ‘mania for culture’ – jazz recordings, red wine, Danish furniture, Shakespeare and the compulsions – may be just a form of vanity or, even worse, ‘a bandage’ to camouflage the gulf between herself and her parents. And yet what she’s left with is her sense that she’s no more than ‘a little bubble winking at the brim of our civilisation’.
That said, Alice accepts that civilisation is ‘in its decadent declining phase’ and that ‘a lurid ugliness is the predominant feature of modern life’. But now she begins to feel that ‘her sympathies are engaged’ with the Christian mindset, though she recognises that it will be difficult for her to shake her conviction that nothing matters, life is random, her sincerest feelings are reducible to chemical reactions and that ‘no objective moral law structures the universe’.
But while Alice cannot bring herself ‘to believe in absolute morality, which is to say, in God, she does believe that she has been ‘given something very important, a special gift, a blessing . . . it was like God had put his hand on my head’.
It will be interesting where Sally Rooney pitches her tent in her next novel. For the moment Beautiful World gives a glimpse of an itch for the divine. She may well begin to scratch it a bit more.