Sex and Sensibility

Writing advice I’ve seen or made up: “When something blocks you, don’t go around the hurdle. Instead, take it on. Write into the block.”

Might Sally Rooney’s hurdle be less of “I am famous and fame chains me”, and more of “How do I justify writing individual lives, love and sex – a novel, in short – when real issues are social, political and planetary?” Rooney’s characters debate this second question on the page. As we know from all the interviews and articles that apparently depress Rooney, she was a champion debater. And yet … do these sound like literary and moral quandaries that readers queue up overnight to get their hands on?

I love the idea of pop-up shops to create, I mean meet, demand. Dawn queues to engage with exchanges about capitalism in the 21st century. Me personally, I moved this novel to the top of my tbr pile. And so I sincerely mean the baking metaphors and the dietary question: Why does her fiction go down so delicious and smooth?

Maybe because Beautiful World Where Are You? leavens the philosophy with the youthful yearning that made Normal People such a confection – intellectually seasoned passion, a bit like Call Me By Your Name but with different proportions of sex to sensibility. (Not irrelevant: both translated to films that embody desire and the desirable.)

Another ingredient in the Rooney cuisine: change over time. Rooney novels, it seems to me, rise and fall in waves rather than (obviously) arcing. The lonely schoolgirl dork blossoms (again) in young adulthood as the popular intellectual. No paths run smooth. Relationships morph. Characters wait a decade or more to recognise longings and then these shift again. It’s unsettled fiction and yet (and so?) it goes down easy.

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