The Bluestocking, vol 201
Sally Rooney, Her Soundcloud Checked.
The more keen/bored among you might have spotted there was no Bluestocking last week, as I was flirting with an introduction which could have been titled A Response To My Critics. The only thing to do with such pieces, of course, is to write them in a vengeful fury, take a deep breath, and then consign them to a folder full of other pieces which could also be titled A Response To My Critics.
(Basically, I wanted to argue with some Sex People who were angry about my Atlantic piece on consent and feminism, but then I remembered they’d be too busy consensually and lovingly strangling each other to read my reply, anyway.)
The payoff is that you get a special Bluestocking this week, on the Sally Rooney/meme intersection.
Overture: The Pose and The Voice (Lit Hub)
“When I was in university, and friends with mainly fellow literature obsessives, or—let’s be honest—geeks, we would play a game where someone would read the first sentence on page 149 of any given book and the rest of us would have to guess who wrote it . . .The idea at the time—this was the 1990s—was that any well read person should be able to figure out who was writing from any given sentence they wrote.
. . . It is next to impossible to play the page 149 game with the 21st-century novel.”
Not sure I agree with everything on this essay, but it’s very thought-provoking. Stephen Marche argues that there has been a generational turn in literature from “the voice” to the “pose”—away from strongly authored Rothian novels towards alienated, flat, self-deprecatory postures, such as those of Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh.
Sally Rooney, briefly (a lie) reviewed
My main takeaway from Beautiful World, Where Are You wasn’t the clinical precision of its prose. It was that Sally Rooney is the first writer I’ve read who has captured the experience of living online—particularly its non-verbal language. She understands memes, lads. She is writing about now.
That isn’t to say the book is a masterpiece. I enjoyed it on the sentence level—Rooney is an incredibly perceptive writer, and her narrative precision is watchmaker-like—while remaining unenthused at the macro level. The plot is thin, and the self-consciousness occasionally grates. Every so often since reading it, I find myself getting angry with her for using her undoubted gifts to such insubstantial ends.
This novel weaves together two love stories. The first features Alice, the Rooney-a-like writer repelled by literary celebrity, and Felix, a warehouse worker in the rural Irish village to which she escapes from being famous. The second plot follows Alice’s friend Eileen, a literary journalist, and Simon, Eileen’s childhood sweetheart. In a novel which repeatedly returns to the numbing quality of irony—if only we could just feel, instead of simultaneously feeling and reflecting on that feeling—Simon’s sincere religious faith is a slash of primary colour through the tasteful beige of middle-class intellectual life.
Very little happens to either of these couples—a trip abroad, a visit to church, some sex— so the rest of the page count is taken up with emails between Alice and Eileen, worrying to each other about climate change and civilisational collapse, and how awful it is to have to go and collect literary awards. (Every other author to Rooney: POOR YOU.)
The whole tone is of a hot afternoon in mid-September: lazy, enjoyable, convivial but marred by the great shadow of imminent autumn, an awareness that anything this good doesn’t last. Or maybe the limp sadness of an out-of-season seaside resort. This can feel airless and stultifying, and not by accident: Rooney is conveying something about the emptiness of modern life, when so much of our joy is performed for an imagined audience who will view this moment later, online. Life becomes pre-content, a future Instagram post.
The problem is that in creative terms, creating this atmosphere feels like a dead end. Oddly, it made me think of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which offered a postmodern deconstruction of the superhero genre. Wonderful, funny, acutely observed—but once you’ve done it, where do you go next? Rooney’s postmodern deconstruction of the romance novel has the same issue. Along with LitHub’s Stephen Marche, I do wonder if she will ever write another novel. I hope that if she does, it’s very different. The soil of millennial angst feels tilled to exhaustion. Time for some plot rotation.
And now to Star Trek.
Bet you weren’t expecting that, huh?
My absolutely favourite thing about Sally Rooney is that, despite claiming to have absented herself from all social media (and most social life) because she finds it appalling and empty, at heart she’s Extremely Online. Literature’s gain is truly shitposting’s loss, although I’m not entirely convinced she doesn’t have a burner Twitter account.
This year, I’ve also (tried to) read the new novels by Patricia Lockwood and Lauren Oyler, which are much more overtly concerned with What The Internet Is Doing To Us, but neither of them quite clicked with me. I think it’s because those books put the internet centre-stage. They look online culture directly in the eye, when really, it’s better treated like water. It’s just everywhere, bleeding into everything, inescapable.
My favourite parts of Beautiful World, Where Are You are when Rooney records modern experiences with that watchmaker’s precision of hers: for example, as Eileen sits on the bus and watches the dot move on Google Maps; or as Alice picks up her boyfriend’s phone and finds he’s been searching for “rough anal”. The pinnacle is the exquisite sequence, early on, where Eileen stalks her ex-boyfriend Aidan like an amateur detective, uncovering clues to his new life on tagged Facebook pictures.
This is where Star Trek comes in.
In the Star Trek: TNG episode Darmok, from 1991, Captain Picard gets stuck on an alien planet, where the aliens talk in . . . memes—although no one, except some Richard Dawkins fans, would have identified them as such at the time. Their unit of sense is not a word, but an image or incident.
Here’s an example, from Ian Bogost’s excellent explanation of the episode:
FIRST OFFICER (laughing): Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.
DATHON: The river Temarc.
The officers immediately stop their laughter—as if ordered to.
DATHON (continuing; for emphasis): In winter.
The First Officer looks very concerned—objects.
FIRST OFFICER: Darmok? Rai and Jiri at Lungha.
DATHON (shrugs): Shaka. When the walls fell …
Perhaps this sounds like gibberish. Let’s try another way.
Oh . . . right.
Now you get it.
If you spend any time on Twitter/Tumblr/Reddit—hell, maybe even with the Boomers on Facebook—you will start to soak up a new way of communicating. You’ll talk like the people on Darmok. Not through words, but through images. I guess you could call them pictograms:
Meryl Streep applauds [good point]
A white man blinks [surprise]
David Tennant in the rain [sadness]
All of these pictograms can also be used ironically, of course—I could reply to your assertion that there were no Twixes left at Lidl with a moist Tenth Doctor:
Woe is you. Have a Mars bar instead.
In Beautiful World, Where Are You, there is a perfect example of Darmok-style language: better than the visual memes above, because it’s delivered in words. Scouring the internet, Eileen sees that her ex Aidan has captioned a photograph of himself as “local sad boy. normal brain-haver. check out the soundcloud.” She doesn’t unpack this, and neither does the narrator. Yet the density of meaning in these 11 words is astounding. We can guess his age, his political affiliation, and how much time he spends online.
local sad boy. The first sentence is a self-deprecating meme—you might describe yourself as a “sad boy” or a “failson” or even a “large adult son” as a way of communicating your ordinariness, and also the ordinariness of your ordinariness. There’s nothing special about your sadness. (And of course you don’t use capital letters because you’re a Certified Bad Boy.)
normal brain-haver. The second sentence invokes a grammar beloved of Twitter leftists, who might describe themselves as “the Corbyn appreciator” or “the human-rights defender” (though rarely “the antisemitism minimiser”, funnily enough). You can also do tweets attacking other people using this format: “oh look, _the_feminism_explainer_ has logged on”.
Rooney self-identifies as a Marxist, so it makes sense that she understands this particular idiolect, which I have to confess, winds me right up: an allegedly punky, rebellious speech code that everyone in a small social circle parrots in unison. (You know when the crowd in Life of Brian shouts “We’re All Individuals”? That’s how I feel whenever someone does a tweet like “sir keith starmer won’t bone you, Lelen Hewis” or “defending centrism is it”.) I know the point is for these jokes to be deliberately and ironically bad, but the effect is like a seven-year-old repeating everything you say back to you in a silly voice, i.e. you just want to give them a clip round the ear. It also comes off as incredibly insecure: if the joke is that I’m not funny, I don’t have to worry about anyone criticising me for not being funny. Another postmodern dead end. Still, let’s give Aidan points for the fact he’s not a self-described “smol pupper owner” and so at least has a whisper of self-respect.
check out the soundcloud. The last bit of Aidan’s bio is what you post when a tweet goes viral. The phrase began its life with tweeters trying to leverage interest in the dumb-but-popular meme they’d just seen go viral into publicity for their real work, such as the music they had uploaded to the sharing website Soundcloud. (“Wow, this tweet [of a dog skateboarding] blew up! Check out my soundcloud!”)
Of course, the Ironic Turn has now claimed the phrase, and these days it instead signifies that you disdain the whole business of online self-promotion. Why yes, I might have achieved virality for photoshopping last season’s Drag Race winner into the Last Supper, but actually I’m very exercised about abortion rights in Texas. This is the same impulse that leads people on Twitter constantly to demand that journalists write the kind of serious articles—perhaps on foreign atrocities—that website metrics reveal the same people don’t actually want to read.
Rooney is the first writer I’ve seen who understands the language of being Extremely Online well enough to use it without self-reflexiveness. (This is what I mean by the difference from Oyler and Lockwood, whose tone is more: jeez, look how the internet has made us insane.) It’s always an important moment in the culture when something moves from spectacle to background hum—like when we could stop writing “the microblogging platform Twitter” in articles and just write “Twitter”.
I had a similar experience when reading Alex Garland’s The Beach as a teenager. Unremarked upon and casually mentioned, there’s a description in that book of playing as Blanka in Street Fighter 2, tap-tap-tapping the X button until you electrify. It was the first time I had found a literary writer for whom video games were not something wacky and newfangled, but part of the everyday experience of life. Early readers of Chekhov had the same experience with trains and telegraphs. A surprising undercurrent of Shakespeare’s Henry plays is how gunpowder is changing warfare, ending the age of chivalry and hand-to-hand combat. (Tudor anxieties about the psychological effects of killing at a distance are echoed today in our discourse about unmanned drones.) In each case, a paradigm shifted and a native speaker of the new world arose to convey the change to a mass audience.
Shakespeare spoke gunpowder. Chekhov spoke telegraph. Alex Garland spoke videogames. Sally Rooney speaks Internet.
To do this requires more than talent, of course. You have to be born at the right time. Douglas Adams once captured how we respond to technology:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
This goes back to what Stephen Marche was arguing in LitHub. There has been a generational turnover in literary fiction, and we now have the first generation of internet-native works. That’s exciting. It almost justifies the existence of Twitter.
In laying out Aidan’s bio, Rooney captures all of this—internet culture’s stew of irony and insecurity and performance and status anxiety and tribal affiliation and desperation for attention while adopting a pose of diffidence. In eleven words! In the context of Beautiful World, Where Are You, the point of this section is that Aidan, like many of the Too Online, has stitched together a whole persona out of pre-chewed ideas. He is not authentic, whereas Simon—unselfconsciously singing a hymn at Mass—is a real person, not a collage of memes. And so Simon is the worthy romantic hero, and Eileen settles down to a happily un-ironic life with him: baby, mortgage, the works.
However, Aidan’s 11 words are also a test: like Picard on Darmok, can you decode these random snatches of meaning? In Star Trek, “Shaka, when the walls fell” turns out to mean “failure”—referring to an original incident everyone on the planet would be expected to know. (Maybe they were big Civ 5 fans.) “Check out the soundcloud” is, similarly, part of a dialect—the language of the Too Online.
If you can decipher it, you have won admittance to a special club. You and Rooney share a language which is impenetrable to 99% of the world’s population. You have also, in some cosmic moral sense, lost. Simon wouldn’t know what “check out the soundcloud” meant, and he’s all the happier for it.
And there you have it. The ultimate irony is that the anxious, finickity deconstruction of modern life outlined above wouldn’t be out of place as a missive from Alice to Eileen. You win this time, Rooney.
If you like this post, please share it to social media, but in an ironic way which implies you disdain virality and the endless popularity contest on the online world, while obviously winning effortlessly at it.
See you next time.