THE ARRIVAL of the redcoats in Meryton means danger, but mostly for the neighbourhood’s young ladies. The Napoleonic wars and the threat of invasion—the backdrop to “Pride and Prejudice” and much of Jane Austen’s fiction—flicker almost invisibly at its margins. Her canvas is interior and domestic, or, as she put it, a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”.
Then again, Lizzie Bennet and Emma Woodhouse didn’t have CNN and the internet. Two centuries later, the world beyond the story is harder to keep out; doing so risks looking implausible, even indecent, a moral failing on the part of the characters, the writer or both. Through a mix of taste and conscience, these days serious authors—or those who want to be taken seriously—often let the cataclysm in. The titles on this year’s Booker prize longlist, for instance, touch on civil war in Sri Lanka, artificial intelligence, apartheid, slavery, immigration and the future of the planet.
In the over-exposed 21st century, do great books inevitably require grand themes? Or can they still be written about the miscommunication and love affairs of enchanting 20-somethings? This is the fundamental question posed by Sally Rooney’s novels. In the latest, she raises it herself.
Despite the instant messaging and lashings of sex, “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People”, the Irish writer’s first two books, evinced deeply traditional, Austenesque strengths—such as a piercing grasp of the ebb and flow of power in dialogue and of the motive force of desire. Big-picture crises are namechecked; class and money intrude. But as her young characters forge their lives in the daunting adult world, they mostly gaze at their navels, and each other’s. The novels brilliantly charted the unstable boundary between friendship and romance and deserved their many accolades. (Both have been adapted for television: see picture.) Bucking the political tendency of upmarket publishing, they made it seem that, after all, love might still be enough.
And yet Ms Rooney herself has doubts. In her new book, “Beautiful World, Where Are You”, the two main characters debate the purpose of fiction—in particular, whether the fiction of feelings, the kind in which they appear, is essentially unethical. One of them, Alice, is a young novelist whose career resembles Ms Rooney’s. “Who can care,” she asks, “what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter?”
In interviews Ms Rooney has expressed similar reservations about her own storytelling. So have those dissenting critics who dismiss her work as parochial. When the world is burning and the future is bleak, these qualms are understandable. But they are mistaken.
The English novel is capacious, and has always been a democracy. When Daniel Defoe invented the form by accident at the beginning of the 18th century, he populated it with ordinary people. Lurid events featured—a shipwreck, a death sentence—but not the fate of nations. Even in the age of instant news, a novel can be great in different ways, its value resting on what it is, rather than what it is not. It can entertain, move or enlighten, thrill with its prose or the delineation of emotion or the evocation of setting or an ingenious structure. It can reach its hand to heaven to set the world in order, as prize judges often prefer, but no apology is needed if it doesn’t. It is as likely to be undone by its themes as commended by them: if the plot serves an argument, rather than the other way around, the result is not a novel but a lecture.
In “Beautiful World, Where are You” Alice’s friend, Eileen, defends the fiction of feelings on the grounds that love and family are what matter to people in the end. This argument is both unconvincing—which people?—and redundant. A better defence of Ms Rooney’s craft comes in a scene involving Eileen and her on-off lover Simon, who together make up one of the self-sabotaging couples in which the author specialises. For all their repartee, they are incapable of articulating their feelings, or of their own happiness. They are wisecracking at Simon’s flat in Dublin:
For a moment she watched him while he rubbed the arch of her foot with his thumb. Then in a different voice she asked: How was your day?
He glanced up at her, and then back down again. Fine, he said. And yours?
The up-and-down glance registers the shock of the banal, a daring ordinariness that hints at a new kind of relationship. Such moments of observation prove that narrow can sometimes be deep. They can do without politics, and need no justification.