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Creative Sensemaker

People like Sally and Boris

Thursday 2 September 2021

Whisper it quiet, but the acclaimed author Sally Rooney (a Marxist) and the Prime Minister (a Tory) are more alike than you’d think


What do Sally Rooney and Boris Johnson have in common? Both began their respective meteoric ascents in the world of debating; in the merciless world of public point-scoring and performative argument.

The acclaimed novelist, it is true, earned her rhetorical stripes in rigorously marked contests, becoming, at the age of 22, the number one competitive debater in Europe. The future prime minister, on the other hand, made his mark in the braying carnival of the Oxford Union, with all its frippery and finery: winging it to the top of that organisation, as he has gone on to do in so many others (including Her Majesty’s Government).

What they had in common in their university years was an absolute yearning to win. As a child, Johnson had famously declared his ambition to be “World King”. In a now-famous essay in the Dublin Review in 2015 – published before she was a novelist – Rooney identified the cold potential of debating as a form of self-advancement and self-definition. 

The audience during a debate at The Oxford Union

“Competitive debating,” she wrote, “takes argument’s essential features and reimagines them as a game. For the purposes of this game, the emotional or relational aspects of argument are superfluous, and at the end there are winners… I was number one. Like Fast Eddie [Paul Newman’s pool-playing character in The Hustler], I’m the best there is. And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”

Of course, the very suggestion that Rooney and Johnson might have something in common, some point of psychological convergence, will strike many as a form of cultural blasphemy – a comparison in peculiarly poor taste only five days before the publication of her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Dozens of bookstores are opening early on Tuesday 7 September to mark the occasion – a distinction generally reserved in the past for J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books.  

Only four years since the publication of her debut, Conversations with Friends and three since the million-selling Normal People,  Rooney is treated – almost uniquely among contemporary fiction writers – with something approaching awe and critical reverence, labelled the “first great millennial author” and “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.”

Funnily enough, one of the key protagonists in her new book, Alice Kelleher, has published two successful novels and is struggling with the consequences of fame and fortune. She engages in lengthy email exchanges with her friend Eileen, an editorial assistant at a magazine, about the philosophical challenges of life, even as she embarks upon a Tinder-initiated romance with Felix, a warehouse worker.

So has Rooney, like Eminem or Britney, become one of those artists whose subject too quickly becomes their own celebrity? Yes and no. It is true that she has now morphed into that familiar paradoxical figure: a famous writer who gives interviews complaining about the loss of privacy that comes with the Acclaim Starter Pack.

Paul Mescal who played Connell and Sally Rooney the author discuss the TV adaptation of ‘Normal People’ during a promotional tour in Los Angeles

It is also true that most of what makes her novels good is – in fact – extremely traditional. The astringent economy of the writing recalls Hemingway or Carver. The oscillation between social convention and profound emotion owes something to Jane Austen or even, at times, Edith Wharton. Her unashamed mining of her own life story – if you’ve got lemons, make lemonade – is a 21st-century version of what Saul Bellow called the “higher autobiography”. 

And, to be fair, Rooney herself is quite content to be seen in such a light. “A lot of critics,” she has observed wryly, “have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” Well, exactly.

She is good on class, too, a theme that has been surprisingly under-explored in the fiction of the post-crash era, with its crippling financial uncertainties. In Normal People, the relationship between Marianne, the girl who lives in a mansion, and Connell, the working-class prodigy, never truly escapes the social divide – though it is Connell who is dominant and Marianne submissive in the sexual sphere. And (to confound cliché) it is Connell who is enchanted by literature, and Marianne who frets about the inadequacy of mere cerebration because “she wanted to stop all violence committed by the strong against the weak.”

Daisy Edgar-Jonesas as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in the BBC/Hulu production of Normal People

This, in turn, mirrors Rooney’s own frustration with (as she sees it) the limits of fiction. “I feel like I could devote myself to far more important things than writing novels. And I have just failed to do that,” she said in 2018. “There is a part of me that will never be happy knowing that I am just writing entertainment, making decorative aesthetic objects at a time of historical crisis.”

Where the generational divide does bite is when it comes to Rooney’s outright description of herself as a “Marxist”. There is an appealing honesty in this, I grant you. All the same: for those old enough to remember the Cold War, the Gulag and the tyrannies of the 20th Century, her invocation of such doctrine can sound glib and entitled (see this 2018 interview recorded in Louisiana, in which she discusses the commodification of books and “the culture economy” as if analysing a surge in Czech tractor production in 1967).

What grates, furthermore, is the blithe transplantation of an ideology that has destroyed millions of lives into fictional chamber pieces about the fierce little tragedies and dainty dialectics endured by clever people. Characters that mention Baudrillard but have not read him; characters for whom the self-conscious intertwining of the personal and political is sometimes a little too precious, a little too easy.

Then again, perhaps this is the reality of a new world in which nothing is truly private, in which social media and status anxiety are crushing intimacy, and the ideological ferocity of digital exchange is replacing true curiosity and discussion. In this sense, the perennial paralysis and introspection of Rooney’s characters is an accurate situation report from a cultural moment in which the church of social justice has primacy over the yearnings of the heart.

Boris Johnson in the Commons debating chamber

I can’t help feeling that the scale of the veneration that has been heaped so lavishly and so quickly upon Rooney may not serve her well, or the durability of her talent. The flipside of unconditional awe is usually (as any historian of Marxism knows) eventual cancellation, and a writer of her rare abilities deserves a more nuanced artistic path in the decades ahead. Remember: there was a time when everyone was nice about J.K, Rowling.

For now, though, Rooney – like the prime minister – continues to do what she set out to do in the first place. Which is to win.

Do book your place for “Victoria, Succession and Stephen: is drama better at news than journalism?” next Wednesday, 8 September at 6:30pm BST. Scandals and crime have always been rich territory for screenwriters, but do TV dramatisations now materially influence the way we remember what really happened? Does it matter? It will be taking place in our lovely new newsroom in Fitzrovia, but if you’re joining from further afield, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to join in the conversation digitally.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Pig (selected cinemas and VOD) 

So used have we become to Nicholas Cage the caricature – the tribute act to himself, gurning and squirming – that it is all too easy to forget the Oscar-winning actor who lit up the screen in movies like Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas, and Lord of War. In which context, the news that he was starring in a film about a man in search of his kidnapped pig was not exactly reassuring. As it turns out, however, Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut is one of the cinematic gems of the year, with Cage in amazing form as Robin Feld, a woodsman eking out a living in the Oregon forests with his truffle-hunting pig. When she is abducted, Feld persuades Amir (Alex Wolff, excellent), the flashy young businessman who fences his wares, to help him find her – which means returning to Portland, where he was once a superstar chef. This leads the duo into a sort of foodie underworld, where precious ingredients have the currency of narcotics, brute power is exerted by men such as Amir’s father, Darius, like mafia dons, and there is even a secret subterranean fight club for restaurant workers. It all sounds absurd and yet – extraordinarily – the sheer force of Cage’s performance and the subtlety of Sarnoski’s direction ensure that it coheres beautifully.

Clickbait (Netflix)

Remember Vince (Adrian Grenier) from Entourage? Well, he’s in a whole lot of trouble in this eight-part Netflix bingefest, as Nick Brewer, a family man who is suddenly kidnapped – only to appear online, beaten up, holding a sign that says “I ABUSE WOMEN”, and then another bearing the words “AT 5 MILLION VIEWS, I DIE”. This digital premise is really just a contemporary twist upon a standard thriller trope: who is Nick, really, what has he done, and who is his captor? Zoe Kazan and Betty Gabriel are great as, respectively, his sister, Pia, and his wife, Sophie, initially antagonistic in their shared quest for the truth. Each episode focuses upon one of the protagonists (including, deftly, some of the supporting characters), all of which adds to the atmosphere of paranoia, uncertainty and betrayal.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (general release, 3 September) 

The 25th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most enjoyable so far – and has the merit for non-obsessives that it pretty much works as a standalone movie (though there are plenty of cameos and Easter eggs for the fans). Simu Liu is Shaun, a parking valet is San Francisco who hangs out with his friend Katy (Awkwafina) accomplishing not very much. But the audience doesn’t need Spider-Sense to deduce that all is not as it seems: as it turns out, Shaun is really Shang-Chi, a supremely skilled martial artist, who is dragged back into the world of his villainous father Wenwu, AKA The Mandarin (played by the legendary Tony Leung). Destin Daniel Cretton’s pacy super-flick is a nice mélange of martial arts motifs, the lavish style of wuxia epics and all the trademarks of the MCU franchise. 


Read 

The Whistleblower – Robert Peston (Zaffre)

It’s always a risk when a journalist tries his or her hand at fiction, but Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, delivers a real page-turner with his debut thriller. Instead of plucking the low-hanging fruit of a Brexit-Boris-and-Trump roman à clef, Peston takes us back to the febrile year of 1997, seen through the eyes of Gil Peck, “a glory-seeking journalist” whose “job is to eavesdrop, then share it with you.” When his sister Clare is killed in a hit-and-run, it becomes clear that this was no accident. But that is only the start of a gripping plot that quickly puts one in mind of Robert Harris’s narrative gifts. It helps, of course, that Peston was, as now, so close to the political action in 1997. But it’s also striking how good he is at making – for instance – the lesser characters plausible figures on the grand political stage. 

The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain – Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane)

You may know that Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), the pioneering English potter, was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. But did you know that he was himself unable to turn the wheel, left disabled by the smallpox epidemic of 1742? Hunt, who is director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, presents Wedgwood as the Steve Jobs of his era, “in his interdisciplinary thinking, aesthetic control, production oversight and relentlessly experimental frame of mind”. A child of the Enlightenment, a dissenter, and an abolitionist, he was also a crashing snob who paraded his royal and aristocratic clientele in order to turn his pottery into a global powerhouse. Wedgwood’s story is really the story of British innovation, audacity and the Industrial Revolution – with a sting in the tail, as the brand he creates is eventually allowed to decline by much lesser figures. A fine work of history, with uncomfortably contemporary resonances.

The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict – Mark Leonard (Bantam Press)

Mark Leonard, who has been a force in foreign policy thinking for a quarter century, describes this book as “an intervention”, and so it is. Connectivity, he argues, has created a global village, but it has also established an infrastructure of instability, confrontation, cyber-conflict and misinformation. Unlike many recent surveyors of the global scene, however, he refuses to be a fatalist, and, in a tract that is also rich in data and anecdote, sets out a five-step manifesto for what he calls “disarming connectivity.” If you’re feeling intellectually disoriented after the fall of Kabul, start here.


Listen

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – Halsey

Since their first album Badlands (2015), Halsey has been a consistently interesting artist – and this, their fourth, is possibly the most intriguing yet. Produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, it fizzes with energy, irony and grit – but also vulnerability (“You will bury me before I bury you.”). It is, in Halsey’s own words, “a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth… The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully.” Dave Grohl is recruited to play drums on “Honey”, and there is hard rock-grunge thread running through the album – but also nods to hip-hop and dance music. “I am disruptive, I’ve been corrupted,” Halsey sings. “And by now, I don’t need a fuckin’ introduction.” They certainly don’t.

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2; Scherzi – Seong-Jin Cho; London Symphony Orchestra

Since he scooped first prize at the 2015 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, Seong-Jin Cho has been a front-rank pianist, whose albums with Deutsche Grammophon – of which this is the sixth – have been a constant joy. In his exploration of the concerto, it clearly helps that he has collaborated closely for five years with conductor Gianandrea Noseda – who gives him all the space he needs to let loose his creativity and curiosity as a performer.

Another Side of John Coltrane – John Coltrane

“After all the investigation, all of the technique – doesn’t matter! Only if the feeling is right.” So said John Coltrane, a claim about the essence of jazz for which this wonderful compilation of recordings, mostly from 1956 and 1957, is a persuasive exhibit. His collaborators here include Miles Davis, Art Taylor, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins, and the smoothness of the sounds they create is often breathtaking. An hour and 14 minutes of music that, at one and the same time, somehow exhilarates and relaxes the listener: the alchemy of the ‘Trane in its purest form. 

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs; Basso Cannarsa/Opale/Alamy, Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images, David Buchan/Variety/Shutterstock, UK Parliament/Flickr, BBC/Hulu, Neon Distribution, Ben King/Netflix, Marvel Studios