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Madeleine Schwartz on Sally Rooney
With Sally Rooney’s Normal People arriving soon in the United States, Madeleine Schwartz in the New York Review of Books takes a close look at Rooney’s millennial politics:
Her characters talk about politics all the time, testing out new ideas like outfits for a get-together. The debates are friendly and mellow, sheltered by the understanding that everyone at the table agrees with the fuzzy leftist principles in play. The analysis is therefore softly put and somewhat limited, like when Bobbi thinks that depression is caused by late capitalism or the friends chat online about the economics of love. …
Maybe we shouldn’t expect too much from them. They’re college students. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to treat politics as an extension of social rules rather than a way of understanding the world. But it’s not clear if it’s a novelistic choice to keep the politics to the realm of dinner party conversation. Why don’t Rooney’s characters get angry, or do more than mill around at a Gaza protest with friends? The system is rigged against them, and against all millennials—the most credentialed generation in history and yet unlikely to ever earn anything close to their parents’ incomes, as millennial sociologist Malcolm Harris has amply documented in his book Kids These Days (2017). Rooney herself has spoken and written about politics in essays for the London Review of Books. Her characters lack this knowledge or understanding, nor do the books offer much by way of diagnosis.
Of course characters in novels are not sociologists writing essays. Yet the reader wonders why, for all their talk of capitalism, they don’t rebel against the situation they’ve identified, or find a politics they might use to change it. They seem to accept the rankings and rules of the world around them.