‘It Was Like I’d Never Done It Before’: How Sally Rooney Wrote Again

‘It Was Like I’d Never Done It Before’: How Sally Rooney Wrote Again

With her closest friends, she’ll exchange ideas about climate change, economic inequality and who broke up with whom, all in the same breath. “It would be artificial to try and reproduce some kind of compartmentalization that I don’t feel in my real life,” she said.

For Rooney, the intimate and the ideological go hand in hand. That is, you can’t fully understand Felix and Alice’s relationship, or Eileen and Simon’s, without understanding their relative positions within the social order around them.

So, yes, she does have opinions on Dublin’s housing crisis, but even if she didn’t, “as a novelist,” she said, “I simply have to engage with the reality of the housing market, because the characters have to live somewhere. They have to go home, put a key in the door and live.”

Rooney thinks it’s a “cop-out” to say she writes simply because she’s not good at anything else. (She did say this, to the Irish Independent, in 2018.) “You don’t have to be really good at trying to make a difference in the world,” she said. “You could just be mediocre at it and still try, and I’m not.”

Instead, she’s written a novel that attempts to justify not just itself, but novel writing, period.

What it comes down to, for her — and for Henry James and the Victorians, and even Felix — is some inherent, transformative value in aesthetic experience. “I want to live in a culture where people are making art, even as everything else falls apart,” Rooney said. “It gives my life meaning.”

In “Beautiful World,” one evening, Eileen narrates an arousing scene to Simon over the phone in which an imaginary wife takes off all his clothes, and he has sex with her. “I live for detail,” Eileen tells him. “You paint a compelling picture,” Simon says, moments before he orgasms.

Both characters, on either end of the line, are left flushed, breathing hard; perhaps the reader even feels something too. Because at the end of the world, when there’s nothing left but one another, we’ll still be moved, in spite of everything, by story.

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