Pigeon-holing, Tastemaking, False Categories or: Sally Rooney and the Aesthetics of Alienation – Michigan Quarterly Review

Pigeon-holing, Tastemaking, False Categories or: Sally Rooney and the Aesthetics of Alienation


Before he died in 2005, the South African writer K Sello Duiker once complained to a journalist: “people like to pigeon-hole others.”  Duiker had noticed the insidious critical tendency to fixate over specific features of his work: the presence of violence, homosexuality, and crime. Duiker’s statement might be understood as his own criticism of how his work was received and critiqued (even to this day)—a kind of reading preoccupied with the spectacle of things happening to people, not the people in the stories, so that the critic might arrive at a “pigeon-hole,” a term that might capture the work and render it legible, but legible for whom? “People like to pigeon-hole others” underscores how the literary critic, as a tastemaker for a reading public, limits art.  Perhaps Duiker resisted these categories because he knew that literature by black South Africans was read as anthropology. Perhaps Duiker resisted these categories because his aesthetic interests belied the framework used for his work. Perhaps Duiker resisted these categories because he was politically aware that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was still too early, too hopeful to call South Africa a “post-apartheid” nation, therefore the existence of “post-apartheid” literature as a category of art was confounding. Or, simply, these were false categories that served the namers, the literary critics, and comforted a certain class: we’re past the past. “People like to pigeon-hole others” sounds like a writer exhausted with the language of criticism. “People like to pigeon-hole others” resembles a question in the Morrisonian sense: To whom do these names belong? Whom do these categories serve? “People like to pigeon-hole others” is a warning against a reductive art discourse where one cannot engage with art without the stalking voice of the critic, a kind of reading that refuses to see what else the text presents if you look close enough. 

The pigeon-holing, categorizing, sorting, capturing, naming of literary works is a universal practice that allows critics to determine what is important and what is not, and therefore the categories used for said literature at least in part determine the value of said work. In recent years, a curious category emerged—the millennial novel, which critics attached to Sally Rooney’s work, especially Conversations with Friends and Normal People. Several critics have attempted to determine what constitutes a “millennial novel.” The critics all arrive at the conclusion that the millennial novel, such as Rooney’s, tends to incorporate social media as a means of communication; presents a fixation with “teenage heartbreak”; or whose characters exhibit a “rootless, anxious life.” The inclusion of new technology—machinery—is a craft move as old as the novel itself; the fixation with “teenage heartbreak” and a sense of an unanchored “anxious life” are conditions so common in the history of the novel and humankind that it seems like a waste of time to continue a conversation about the millennial novel since such a reading performs a rhetorical explication of the novel without engaging the social context that brings about any given book. 

The trouble here supersedes the pigeon-holing of novels about anxious white people; the trouble is the implications of such practices. There exists in Setswana an illustrative proverb: “leina le kaya seromo”—which suggests that names are a prophecy regarding the work (not labor) the named subjects will do in the world. A child with the name “Matlakala” (rubbish) or “Tshegofatso” (blessing) is a prophecy: their parents, from birth, charge them with instructions for how the world ought to treat their children and whom the children ought to become in the world. Naming is serious business. The process of naming is as epistemological as it is materially consequential.  You name a person/thing because of what you hope it achieves in the world. Names, like (social) categories, are a prophecy. What are the implications, then, of “millennial novel” as a literary category? What is this category supposed to achieve and mean? Categories such as “hysterical realism”, “lachrymal literature”, “millennial novel”, “queer sincerity novels”, “literature of the pose” have multiple functions. They first elevate the critic as a namer, as a serious figure of the letters, as a tastemaker. These categories also work to caution and problematize and accuse: “this is not what literature is,” we read between the lines. There is a whiff of the carceral in this sort of practice. The critic becomes the warden. He distinguishes who’s the good from the rest. The critic becomes a carceral dreamer, jiggling and wiggling his long jail keys in the air so that the voice of the critic overshadows the voice of the work. The critic is a bad cop; he refuses to acknowledge that he might be misreading the work—therefore misjudging the work. This sort of critique that traps/encloses/arrests the work isn’t quite surprising—we live in varying forms of a police state, a highly guarded world, a culture that infantilizes art, a world in which a category either values or devalues. Is it surprising then that the critic, who is a product of their culture, dutifully accepts the role of a police officer and a warden all at once? Where is the critique of art that invites, that accepts its errors, that liberates the work to exist in different readings? 

The so-called “millennial novel” is just the same novel mimicking the old ways stories and ideas have been expressed only with Twitter and WhatsApps and emails in lieu of beautiful hand-written letters. 

The “millennial novel” fills no gap or void. The categorization, especially this one, is marketing language, sales language. The name suggests that a universal millennial experience can be expressed by a certain kind of group. Anxious white women, college-educated, leftist politics. The girlboss of it all is not the most baffling part about this category; there is an assumption that a uniform mode of storytelling, an overfixation with cosmopolitan life, the discussion of leftist politics, and communication via the internet, somehow needs a novel container, as though there is a gap within the culture for such. Sally Rooney was the perfect candidate for this: white, young, brilliant, woman, heterosexual, college-educated, prodigiously talented. She had to be heralded as someone new, providing something new. Twenty or so years ago, the same was said about Zadie Smith, though differing maybe in her race (and there came what James Wood called hysterical realism). The literary establishment and its practitioners worship youth but they also find youth suspect, yet the ambiguous space between their obsession with prodigiousness and suspicion is rarely questioned. What lurks there, in those shadows, and what might be found? 

This discussion is to arrive at this point: The trouble with “millennial novel” as a category is how it feeds into the logic of capitalism, the suggestion that the writer and their work emerged out of nowhere to fill this gap. Sure, the novel ends up being a commodity. We know this. But there is an underlying feeling embedded within this “millennial novel” category: a hunger for literature of the now. A hunger for literature about “relevance”—meaning hot pop and cultural superficial fluff parading as something serious, or elevated to the level of art. These critics-as-prophets tend to separate the complex, ambivalent, serious content/art of the “millennial novel” from old-as-time discourses. So long as the critic, like the law, can’t be wrong, the work will never be free—it will never exist beyond the critics’ imagination.


In his review of Beautiful World, Where Are You, the writer Brandon Taylor notes the “familiarity” of the questions in Rooney’s new work. What might it mean to read Rooney alongside James Joyce, not (only) as a read through the canon or national Irish literature, but a focus on the shared questions they present? To read Rooney alongside Joyce’s Dubliners and his later works is not an act of mere laziness, nor is it because their writing treats Dublin and Irishness (whatever that means). But in their work there is a way that the subject of alienation appears so clearly. A particular story in Joyce’s Dubliners comes to mind:  “Two Gallants.”  In Joyce’s story, as in Rooney’s recent novel, there exists a narrative device that in scene dramatizes separation, in which aloneness and loneliness are presented as experiences the character seeks to undo, but some force beyond their reach remains in control. There is a tendency, in the narrative style that functions as a tracking lens in a scene, to implicate the reader into a certain gaze, to see through the character’s eyes so that the reader and character are limited by their own subjectivity. Joyce differs from Rooney in that he privileges interiority, which at times feels like an interest in capturing consciousness and place on the page.  In Joyce’s story, a rootless Lenehan watches his friend Corley wander off, leaving Lenehan with a gripping sensation: he wants more; he can’t have more. The separation feels problematic. He and Corley should be together in some form. He should have the things Corley has. Lenehan’s life should be working out and he thinks himself left behind. There is a social script that he knows to exist, but his own life does not match up with what he desires and what he’s trained to desire. Joyce offers this meditation of alienation as Lenehan takes stock of his life: “This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit.” And this is the clearest articulation of alienation: it is a poverty of materiality and soul. Joyce continues: “[Lenehan] was tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by the tail, of shifts and intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own?” 

In Beautiful World, Rooney approaches alienation as a necessary question of the twenty-first century Euro-American novel. Reading Rooney in this way, how the novel is experienced through characters, something interesting arises. By subjugating the definition and concept of the “millennial novel”, quieting the cops in one’s head—and in turn the tyranny of categories—one manages to see beyond merely the features and functions of modern life. 

When reading Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, we see the writer who is interested, among other things, in the literary representation of alienation. The condition of a subject/character’s alienation, in this case, refers to the means with which the novel seeks to explore how the character feels about a problematic separation. Moreover, alienation also underscores how separation prevents one from availing oneself to the concerns of one’s life so that one experiences self-actualization. Rooney represents soft estrangement from family; a separation between friends; romantic relationships whose development is impeded upon by the demanding nature of work. 

Beautiful World relies on the drama of alienation—the novel places its characters on the precipice of connections that are never fully realized. Rooney is not standing in the way of her characters as a puppeteer; the characters fumble at the chances offered to deepen their relationships. Through select scenes, it becomes evident that Beautiful World intends to marry complicated social theories—alienation and anomie—with complex human experiences. The novel becomes a device through which one might see the manifestations of alienation, not from a theoretical view, but from how one exists in the world.  In Beautiful World, Rooney asks: what can the novel really achieve? What is the novel’s utility? 

The novel opens with the scene of an anxious woman waiting on a man for a date. Throughout the date, the woman (Alice, who is a writer) insists on beginning the date with small talk. It seems polite, one gathers, for a date to begin with a conversation about work. But the man (Felix) reveals that “he fucking hates” his work at the factory where he collects “orders off the shelve and” puts “them into a trolley and” brings “them up to be packed. Nothing exciting.” One might accuse Rooney of didacticism, reducing Felix, because of his flat affect, into a caricature or a mouthpiece for class politics. After all, Rooney’s Marxist views are known.  While that claim might be true, something more interpersonal is happening, something in their real lives is unfolding: Felix is the first person with whom Alice has had a real conversation since she moved to the sea town after living in Dublin where she was in psych care, but Alice chooses chit-chat. She chooses not to ask Felix interesting questions that might have established a bond, to determine their chemistry since after all they are on a date. At this juncture, the reader expects a degree of interiority, a kind of solipsistic meditation about small talk commonly attributed to the so-called millennial novel. The reader’s impulse, how they are trained to read, is betrayed by the novel’s narrative choice: the novel relies on the details offered on present action—no interiority or unending exposition. The reader, along with Alice and Felix, is caught up in this awkwardness. The interpretive power returns to the reader so that they can make a judgment: Alice struggles with basic human communication, and this personal struggle emerges from an economic system which has objectified her such that she’s alienated and unable to engage with her humanity. 

Later, as the date concludes, another (missed) chance of a connection arises: Felix bids goodbye to the waitress at the bar, the kind of behavior that Alice finds “odd.”  But is “odd” the appropriate term to describe how one feels about a man acknowledging other women on a date? Instead of stating how she feels about the whole encounter, Alice, by way of question, hurls out an accusation: How often does Felix meet with women at that bar? Her question underscores several notions: in Felix’s confusion at the accusation, the narrator reminds the watchful reader that these people are strangers and Alice’s demands are absurd. In the same vein, Alice expresses a desire to connect with Felix but she miscommunicates. She chooses insult over inquiry. Beautiful World thrives from these scenes of tension between Alice and Felix. There is always a rope, each of them at the end of it pulling and pulling at each other. These particular scenes have the most tension; Rooney’s spare prose creates an atmosphere of quiet on the page so that there is no distraction, as this drama unfolds, until it becomes clear: conflict becomes a device through which these people know how to form a connection—conflicts and sex are a means of representing and undoing alienation.


Enter a new (hopeful) couple: Eileen and Simon—whose relationship has evolved from childhood neighbors to bedfellows and struggle—meet at a coffee shop during their lunch breaks. Eileen, who works as an editorial assistant for a literary magazine in Dublin, has shitty roommates, and uselessly pines over an ex-boyfriend whom she stalks on Instagram, meets with Simon, whose government job makes him “important looking.” The first bit of their conversation seems superfluous, although it doesn’t seem like the author developing a throat-clearing tic. No. The obfuscation belongs to Eileen and Simon. Although they have a genuine connection, they must wander about until they reveal several matters they truly want to divulge. 

Shortly after the low-stakes chat, Simon reveals that he “had a bad dream.” (Rooney assumes the readers know something about Freud and the interpretation of dreams: they underscore desire.) Eileen asks for an explanation of that dream and Simon offers that he dreamed that Eileen was marrying someone else other than him. Instead of asking Simon a serious, personal question, demanding clarification as to what stands in the way of that “dream” being true, Eileen (like Alice) fumbles by way of a question: does Simon go around telling women at his office that he dreams about them? (The similarity of responses from Beautiful World’s women troubles the novels: Alice and Eileen have doubleness about them—most apparent in their language—and it becomes difficult to distinguish one from another.) Like the mismatched couple based outside of Dublin (Felix and Alice), another encounter of contradiction occurs—there is what Eileen wants (which the reader suspects) and then there is what comes out of her mouth (evasion). 

Later, Simon reveals that he will be bringing a “girl” to the wedding of Eileen’s sister, Lola. Instead of holding Simon accountable declaring (in not so many words) that he’d like to marry Eileen but instead will be bringing a woman, Eileen chooses avoidance and asks Simon if he’ll be bringing a “woman.” This is where the doubling of Eileen and Alice serves the novel best: the struggle to communicate one’s feelings becomes a shared ethos, a shared struggle. These struggles to establish or maintain a connection eludes Rooney’s beautiful people. At several turns, each party struggles to rise to the occasion, as though connections require too much fuel to run. What is it, then, we might ask in the end, that has led these characters to arrive at a place where they experience these separations which in turn causes a mismatch in their desires and their actions?


Eileen and Felix are the characters through whom we might see how alienation feels and looks. At one point, Eileen writes to Alice that being alive “feels like looking down and seeing for the first time that I’m standing on a minuscule ledge at a vertical height, and the only thing supporting my weight is the misery and degradation of everything else on earth…I don’t even want to be up here.” Eileen’s agony emerges out of something beyond her class position: her roommates despise her; her sister Lola thinks her mediocre; her parents often think of her as a tool to bridge the gaps in their family; Simon likes younger women; her friend is a successful writer whose concerns often take up all the air in the room. She’s deeply alone. Plus, she works an underpaying job which she deeply loves.  Alienation really, on the cusp of being corrosive, diminishes your place in the world. 

Felix, like Eileen, reveals that alienation is a “lack of control”, a condition sometimes not marked by suicidality, exactly, but a burgeoning ambivalence about one’s own existence. Such an instance occurs at a party where Felix and Alice reconnect, an encounter which leads to his accompanying Alice to Italy for work. His mother had just died and he “started thinking, what’s the fucking point of life, you know? It’s not like there’s anything at the end of it. Not that I really wanted to be dead or anything, but I couldn’t be fucked being alive most of the time either. I don’t know if you would call it a breakdown. I just had a few months where I was seriously not bothered about it.” 

The so-called millennial novel is celebrated for its sex writing, as though this is quite new in the history of the novel. Sex is frequent and quick. Heterosexual sex in Beautiful World signifies not the climax in drama or plot, but a realized human connection. But to what extent?  The sex in this novel at times indicates that sex is the means through which one can undo their alienation. Beautiful World insists on its physicality and corporeal experience. The novel insists (and reminds the watchful reader) that the bodies that do work are the same bodies that cultivate a time to fuck. Sex does not exist as a fact of life, something available and enjoyable. While there is something to admire about the sex writing as unflinching, one cannot read the heterosexual scenes without noting the comedy of the novel’s sex scenes.  It is not bad sex writing but a curious sex writing that burdens the act with so much meaning. Everyone earns their sex in this novel. The women travel a long distance to find it (Eileen’s trips to Simon’s house); the men have to behave well to earn it. After all the trouble: Alice and Eileen always orgasm after a one or two sentences of strokes, there are disclosures that otherwise would not have happened without sex, sentimental conversations ensue as in those American 2010s young-white-people-in-undefined-relationships-sleeping-together films. There is the delusion that a connection has formed. 

One reads the novel’s sex scenes and finds anxiety within the prose. It is as though the novel has no interest in looking closely at those sexual encounters, truly relying on the distant close-third narration it has elected. This is the point in the novel where one finds that the narrative point of view was stifled. There is a purity and sincerity that feels charming but funny. The author and the narrator decide that they want to immediately escape the room. But the narrative voice decided to turn the reader into a voyeur. Why the sudden shift? The bathos of the sex scenes in the unfortunate quick strokes and easily realized orgasms of the women leave one with a sadness. Bodies are turned into machines, nothing is sustained, no erring can happen—the sex has to be fast, the orgasms need to be quick, and there can be no fumbling in the bedroom or a kind of curiosity about the other things bodies can do. Or perhaps heterosexual sex arrives with these codes, of knowing what to do. There is a script they are dancing to, these men and women, but something about it is unbelievable. Heterosexual sex seems laborious and holy and mechanical. The comedy of Beautiful World’s sex presents a claim that capitalism’s pervasion has long entered the bedroom, and sex is the way to undo the alienation—all pleasure and delight is gone, what remains are people struggling at pleasure and connection. Although there is a joining of bodies, the sincerity and disclosure that only exists in the bedroom, what the characters truly want, is never realized. Sure, women orgasm, but is that all? Sex is a force of tension between all of them, a marker of betrayal—never a thing that happens, merely an act on the page burdened by heterosexual domestic aspirations which arrive in the end. Or perhaps this is how heterosexual people have sex: it is always meaningful, never for the sake of it. Alas, everyone is fine in the end.

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