Beautiful World Where Are You, Sally Rooney

Yes, that’s a very undistinguished cover. Will it affect sales? No, of course not. But look at me! Slips of paper marking passages to quote. Not me at all since uni days.

On Friday I had to buy books for birthdays so I was always going to pick up the new Sally Rooney. Unfortunately, Saturday I had work. A quick trip to Geraldton (440 km), load four pieces of roadworking machinery, home the same day. Good theory! At 6am the truck wouldn’t start, phoned my usual mechanics, no answer; phoned Volvo, they finally picked up at 7.00, long weekend, busy etc., maybe they could come out the week after next; phoned my mate Kevin whose paddock I park in, he got up and came out and offered to swap out the starter motor. 10am I was on my way.

Got to Geraldton where the roadworks were in a residential beachside subdivision, made my way through streets and tiny roundabouts with two trailers (not three, thank goodness); the road crew had all gone home the night before but had left me the keys, they said; two problems, where were the keys, certainly not where they said they would be, and this was machinery I had never driven before in my life. By the time I found the keys it was getting on for dusk. I dropped my trailers, found a motel which wasn’t booked out for the long weekend, settled down in front of a TV and the Grand Final (AFL football); and after, made a start on Rooney.

Next morning, Sunday, I set up my trailers, drove the bobcat and three road rollers very slowly up the ramps, steel rollers slipping and sliding even with rubber mats to provide friction; strapped and chained them all down. Five hours! Too many tourists at the three or four stops on the highway home for me to bother queuing for dried out chips for lunch. Home in the evening, well Millie’s, but she was having meat pasties (smelt lovely) so I made do with toast and cheese.

Today, Monday’s a public holiday. I never have any idea when WA is having a public holiday, let alone what for, I think the Queen has already had her birthday. I should be using the time to do truck stuff. You know, crawl around underneath and look industrious, but I put that off and read Rooney instead.

She is undoubtedly the best writer in English since DH Lawrence.

The story is of a writer, Alice, thirtyish, a brilliant success on the back of her first two novels, living in a big house in Galway after a breakdown; her best friend since college, Eileen, a poorly paid editor with a literary magazine in Dublin; Simon, five or so years older, a back-room, presumably left of centre politician, loving/friends with Eileen since she was 15; and Felix, a thirtyish guy, warehouse worker, who in the first chapter meets Alice on a Tinder date. She takes him home, they don’t hit it off, but as they live in the same small coastal town, they must inevitably meet again.

The story is carried forward by marvellously distant third person prose with no internality at all;

On the platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months. Behind them, a tall fair-haired man alighting from the train carrying two suitcases [Alice, Eileen, Simon]. The two women unspeaking, their eyes closed tight … for a second, two seconds, three.

by chapters which are entirely one email from Alice to Elaine or from Elaine to Alice; and by their speech, their (infrequent) phone calls, their texts and the exchange of photographs, just as you might expect in 2019-20, the year before and then, in the final chapters, the year of, the plague.

The emails in particular consisting of the deepest introspection and philosphising, hence the comparison with Lawrence. On sex, for instance –

To me it’s normal to meet people and think of them in a sexual way without actually having sex with them – or, more to the point, without even imagining having sex with them, without even thinking about imagining it. This suggests that sexuality has some ‘other’ content which is not about the act of sex. And maybe even a majority of our sexual experiences are mostly this ‘other’… Our ways of thinking and speaking about sexuality seem so limited, compared to the exhausting and debilitating power of sexuality as we experience it in our real lives.

And also, on God. But no quotes! Simon is both a good person and a Roman Catholic. The others are not. There are discussions on the possibility of Good and Evil without God. Alice comes round to thinking there must be ‘something’. There are hints that the Beautiful World of the title, the possibility of Goodness, is hidden, “concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality”.

The plot itself is straightforward and unimportant, perhaps at the end a little trite even. Couples come together, misunderstand each other, step apart etc., etc. Rooney writes feelingly about the burden of success. But the writing, the exploration of character, of what it means to be thirty and on your way or not on your way, of relationships, of ideas, is brilliant.

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Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, Faber, London, 2021. 337pp.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

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Normal People (2018) is one of those books that ‘everyone’ has read and reviewed. So of course I am late to yet another party, a party I wouldn’t have attended at all except I picked up a copy for $1 at the Red Cross where Milly volunteers. I started reading, and I was hooked.

January 2011 Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell. She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights
Oh, hey, he says.
Come on in.

So from the start, which this is, we see how Rooney means to go on. The principal characters are Marianne and Connell, classmates in the final year of high school – in a smallish town in western Ireland, hillbilly country if you’re from Dublin, though this doesn’t come up for 2 or 3 chapters – outsiders, in different ways, but clearly the two top students. A few lines down we meet Lorraine, Connell’s mother, who cleans for Marianne’s mother a couple of days a week. We see the detail, in this case exactly what items of clothing Marianne is and isn’t wearing, which Kimbofo in her review found obtrusive but which I thought allowed us time to pay proper attention to the action; and of course the absence of quotation marks which I might not have noticed at all except Kim pointed it out. The writing is all in the third person, alternatively from Connell’s POV then from Marianne’s.

The starting position is that Marianne is a bit weird, holds herself aloof from her classmates, doesn’t wear make up, has never been with a boy. While Connell is ‘normal’, captains the school soccer team, hangs with his mates Eric and Rob, has had sex (which he didn’t enjoy), gets hit on by Miss Neary their Economics teacher. Connell, as we have seen, is often at Marianne’s, to drive his mother home, and although they never speak at school, they are friends at least in that small space.

Soon, and almost without preamble they are sleeping together.

The following year when they go up to Trinity College Dublin, Marianne is the ‘normal’ one, outgoing and popular while Connell subsides into loneliness.

Then, a few years later Connell is in a normal relationship with a Helen, a med student, while Marianne is in increasingly abusive relationships with her friend Peggy and Jamie a chinless merchant banker type.

All through, they struggle to maintain their special friendship.

My feeling as a guy reading, and loving, this story was that this was Marianne’s story. Connell, not always but often, felt like a cardboard cutout around which Marianne rose and fell as her backstory was slowly unveiled. I know it’s expected of me to say stuff like this, but Rooney, a woman, is much more perceptive about girls than she is about boys. She knows viscerally the social hierarchy of popularity of girls at schools, but fails to understand the similar hierarchy for boys which flows directly from football, and which the top boys carry forward with them into their real life, as confidence, and often entitlement. A confidence which Connell at Trinity strangely lacks, even allowing for for his rural, working class background.

From the point of that first sex we are rooting, to coin a phrase, for Marianne and Connell to form a permanent relationship. At times they come close then Connell makes a mis-step and Marianne is on her own again. During those intense final months of high school Connell says he loves Marianne but takes the popular girl, Rachel to the end of year Debs. They don’t see each other again until well into term 1 at Trinity. And hook up and break up. And so it goes.

It seems they pretend to each other that they are friends with benefits, and it mostly seems to us that Connell is never sure of Marianne’s feelings for him, and that Marianne would commit if only Connell would.

But all through there is a brittleness to Marianne which we are given clues about, her bullying by her older brother, what she tells Connell about her late father, and then, towards the end of their undergraduate years, her unsuitable relationships, with Jamie who Connell finally sees off, and then Lukas who ..

tells her bad things about herself. It’s hard to know whether Marianne likes to hear those things; she desires to hear them, but she’s conscious by now of being able to desire in some sense what she does not want. The quality of gratification is thin and hard, arriving too quickly and then leaving her sick and shivery. You’re worthless, Lukas likes to tell her. You’re nothing. And she feels like nothing, an absence to be forcibly filled in.

 To put it bluntly, when Marianne is not with Connell she goes out with sadists.

The resolution of this problem, and I think it is resolved, takes all the second half of this fascinating, deeply satisfying and beautifully well written book. I’ve read it twice now, to get this review done, and still I can only hint at how deep it goes in laying out and developing Marianne’s character in particular, but also Connell’s. What I can say is I loved it as much the second time as the first.

 

Sally Rooney, Normal People, Faber & Faber, London, 2018

Other Reviews:
Kim,  Reading Matters (here)
Kate, Booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)

Solar Bones, Mike McCormack

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Here is my research: Mike McCormack (1965 – ) is an Irish novelist. Solar Bones (2016) is his third novel and with it he won the 2018 Dublin Literary Prize of €100,000 (and some other awards which were probably more important but less valuable). I bought Solar Bones on the recommendation of Kim from Reading Matters (here), but I have only now made time to sit down and read it straight through, which I think its format demands. So here goes

the bell
the bell as
hearing the bell as
hearing the bell as standing here
the bell being heard standing here
hearing it ring out through the grey light of this
morning, noon or night
god knows
this grey day standing here and listening to this bell in the middle of the day,
ringing out through the grey light to
here
standing in the kitchen
hearing this bell
snag my heart and

the whole first page of 260 pages of one sentence, not even one sentence really, you can see it has no beginning, is divided into paragraphs with sometimes tenuous connections, has no real end, till

keep going, one foot in front of the other
the head down and keep going
keep going
keep going to fuck

I begin, reading to myself, half aloud, falling into the words, the rhythm, slowly coming to grips with the story as McCormack lapses into more continuous prose. It’s a ‘difficult’ work. It’s mid-afternoon, a bad time for me, reading or driving, I nod off a few times but find that as day becomes evening I am well into it , struggle to find somewhere to pull up, this is the virtue of the single ‘sentence’, there is no natural break, resume in the morning, this morning, go back a page, fall easily into the flow and knock off the last 30 pages before porridge and coffee.

Solar Bones is the story of a middle aged man, county engineer in a small town on the west coast of Ireland, happily married, to a school teacher, with grown up daughter, an artist, and son, backpacking, fruit picking in Queensland. The period appears by references to the Great Financial Crisis and the war in Iraq to be 2009, and the setting is probably an hour up the coast from Cork Galway (which is not named, so I’m guessing, see Kim’s Comment). Marcus, the engineer, is older than the author, “coming of age” (21?) for the 1977 general election.

He sits at the kitchen table as the bells ring out for All Souls Day and begins to recollect the circumstances of his marriage, his one infidelity while at a conference in Prague, reluctantly forgiven by his pregnant wife, the births of his children, lovemaking, the ordinary details of family life, his good relationship with his own parents, now dead. Circling back to the events of this year, Agnes, his daughter’s, first art exhibition, his visceral reaction on discovering the canvases are painted in Agnes’ blood. Mairead, his wife, becoming dangerously ill with a virus, cryptosporidium, in the town water supply, the night of the opening.*

I enjoyed lots of aspects of this novel, and yes I endorse Kimbofo’s recommendation, the easy way that Marcus’ ordinary life and understanding as an engineer is integrated into the story, that this is a middle class marriage, and parenthood, presented with no real drama and yet still enthralling. And of course McCormack’s clear love of country.

What infuriated me is that Marcus is both middle class and middle of the road. (You’ve probably noticed that I take extreme positions on everything). Marcus makes a point of voting in every election, starting with 1977 – which resulted in a landslide to the right of centre Fianna Fáil, and a corrupt local member – but votes first for one side and then the other. Mairead preserves their marriage because she takes the moral position that separation is not an option. Marcus routinely gives in to the local politicians who force him to make less than ideal engineering decisions

the vast majority of decisions are above board and go through without a hitch, but now and again, there are considerations which have nothing to do with engineering and that’s when you feel your arm being twisted so that

I wonder – I wonder lot’s of things – but I wonder if the author is writing about a type, if Marcus stands in for someone else and not himself. Much of the writing is introspective, reminiscent of our own Gerald Murnane, and it comes as no surprise when Marcus reveals that like Murnane he went from school to seminary. I wonder why McCormack who is a marvellous writer, has written so little, is 50 when this his third is published,  each novel has taken him 10 years, so there’s one answer (and there’s been some short story collections).

World fiction is largely passing me by, but I’m glad I made time for this one. Much is made in commentary of the single sentence – and it’s not a sentence but rather a continuous string of words – which draws you inexorably along, the steps from para to para sometimes clunky, sometimes natural and sometimes poetic. But yes, it works.

 

Mike McCormack, Solar Bones, Canongate, London, 2017 (first pub. Tramp Press, Dublin 2016). I have the cover above but without the disfiguring Man Booker sticker.


*I originally wrote ” (the only story I could find – here – “Cork city’s drinking water is at risk”, is dated after the book was written, make of that what you will).” but have since found – “In 2007, there was an outbreak of waterborne cryptosporidiosis in Galway, which caused illness in over 240 people, and led to the imposition of a boil water notice in Galway for a period of 5 months during the peak tourist season.” and “Cryptosporidium contamination risk led to “boil notices” remaining in place in parts of County Roscommon for approximately six-years from 2009 to 2015.” (here)