The characters in Sally Rooney’s novels believe in the redemptive power of heterosexual love. For Rooney, character is plot, as her women and men come into their own through gradually facing each other’s vulnerabilities. Her heroines try on ideas with their girl friends, but ultimately, it is in their relationships with their boyfriends where they act and change. Their friendships are important — but in the way friendships are important to straight people before cohabitation and shared calendars and “We’re busy that weekend.” Rooney’s protagonists don’t know that cishet coupledom is the inevitable conclusion of the novels they live in, but the reader can sense it coming.
The thing is, the novels do talk an awful lot about an alternative to the straight and narrow — that is, bisexuality — but more as an object of speculation than action, something to have ideas about but not do much about. To different degrees, in each of Rooney’s books, bisexuality operates as a hypothetical, rather than an actual desire: one that might complicate her character’s dilemmas or provoke tension but never materializes as a valid choice for living.
Beautiful World, Where Are You?, Rooney’s newest novel released with great fanfare in September, follows the friendship of two young women and their boyfriends-to-be. The friends, Eileen and Alice, write chapter-long emails in which they philosophize, talk about their respective fellas (Simon and Felix), and chide one another for not visiting. Alice and Felix are both bisexual; we learn what they think about bisexuality, but we do not see them engage in queer life in any way. This is to say that bisexuality has no impact on the plot, unlike Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, where the bi protagonist, Frances, is still friends and maybe more with her lesbian ex, Bobbi. Eventually, Eileen and Simon visit Alice and Felix; the girls fight and then reconcile. Then, in the last two chapters, there is a pandemic that once again separates them into their respective couplings and they’re back to emailing.
Bisexuality is the remainder in the equation, a weirdness that can’t be assimilated into Rooney’s world of normalcy. (Her middle novel, Normal People, is very straight, but there is one throwaway line about the possibility that Connell, one of the titular people, could fuck some “weird-looking” bi girls by saying that he, too, was reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.)
One of the reasons Rooney’s novels are so popular is because of her sex scenes, which, when they are between men and women, are narrated touch by touch. Intimacy is integral to her fiction, and not merely as a vehicle to talk about class and power differences, though those are concerns of hers. There are sex scenes in her novels for the sake of pleasure itself, and her characters have a nice time. Sex scenes in a Rooney novel might brush against degradation, especially where money is involved, but they are never abject or dark. If you’re into straight sex, you might get off on them.
And yet, her novels have queer people in them. Why write bisexual characters if you don’t let them have queer sex? You can talk to your friend about bisexuality, but you can’t eat her pussy?
Here we are at the intersection of two online discourses that cyclically resurface to annoy all sides. The Rooney discourse asks whether she is worth the hype, if she writes young adult novels for adults, and if her work stands up to her self-professed Marxism. Meanwhile, bisexual discourse asks: Who is queer enough? Do bisexuals in straight relationships steal queer valor, or are they at high risk of erasure?
In Beautiful World, Alice and Felix share a similar perspective toward bisexuality: Alice says “I’m not exactly heterosexual,” and Felix says “me neither.” Alice, a successful writer living in a castle, says she falls in love with the person, whereas Felix, who works in a warehouse, says it doesn’t make any difference “whether someone is a guy or girl,” though, in the only hint toward bisexual prejudice in the novel, he notes it seems to matter to the girls he dates. In an email to Eileen, Alice writes, “I know I am bisexual, but I don’t feel attached to it as an identity — I mean I don’t think I have anything special in common with other bisexual people.” In other words, Alice is attracted to men and women (the two genders in Rooney’s novels) but is not, herself, queer.
In contrast to cerebral Alice, the working-class, blunt, rough-handed Felix seems to be having a good time with his bisexuality. It’s not clear whether or not Alice has actually slept with women (not that that’s necessary to know you’re bi), but it is strongly implied that Felix has slept with men. He even flirts with another man in the novel: Simon, Eileen’s love. But because half the novel is told from Alice’s perspective, and Alice primarily engages with the world through her intellect, sexuality presents itself as an intellectual problem. In her emails to Eileen, Alice discusses bisexuality as a state of bemusement and wonders what kind of sex she actually enjoys, and why, and what it means to her when she has it. “I wish there was a good theory about sexuality out there for me to read,” she laments, as if there were a dearth of such theories. “All the existing theories seem to be mostly about gender—but what about sex itself? I mean, what even is it?”
Read some queer theory, Alice! Or better yet, put the books down! In real life, there is a way to figure out these questions: You go and have different kinds of sex with different people of different genders, and you learn some things about yourself. But in Rooney’s novels, sex is something men and women (or boys and girls or, ahem, men and girls) do together, and anything beyond that is something you talk about with friends. Or email about with friends, a less direct form of address that permits Alice and Eileen to always talk past each other, to address their own insecurities more than each other.
“Female friendship” has become a trope in millennial literary fiction and prestige television, from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels to Lena Dunham’s Girls to Rooney’s own work. While marriage-minded fictions that offer female friendship as their real love story are hardly a new invention, in a post-Bechdel world, we expect these friends to talk about something more than men. In other words, the friends have access to each other’s interior lives; their understanding is intimate.
In the first pages of Conversations with Friends, we learn how the titular friends identify. “I’m gay, said Bobbi. And Frances is a communist.” But as the title suggests, any gay or communist content in the novel takes place in conversation, not in act, even though the friends are also ex-girlfriends who eventually fall back into bed with each other. Any queer sexuality (or for that matter, leftist politics) is theoretical, not visceral and immediate: “In bed we talked for hours, conversations that spiraled out from observations into grand, abstract theories and back again.”
The novel follows the friends as they fall in with an older, richer, highbrow-famous married couple. At first, it seems like Bobbi will have a fling with Melissa, the writer-photographer wife, but instead, Frances sleeps with the handsome actor husband, Nick. When the friends first meet the marrieds, Bobbi compliments Nick for playing a gay role in a play: Brick from A Streetcar Named Desire. Nick demurs that Brick isn’t quite gay. Bobbi then chides him for calling Brick “just” bisexual and lets on that Frances falls into that category as well. Frances takes a long drag of her cigarette and replies, “Yeah, I’m kind of an omnivore.” “Me too,” admits Melissa. Yet Melissa’s own bisexuality is as meaningful as telling a friend you “might show” to her party. As with Felix and Alice in Beautiful World, Frances understands her bisexuality as neither an identity to inhabit nor a liberatory potential, but as a hypothetical.
Bobbi and Frances do get back together, if not as girlfriends, Bobbi is careful to stipulate. Still, Rooney is much more preoccupied with Frances’ relationship with Nick than with Bobbi, granting detailed sex scenes to Nick and Frances but glossing over Frances’ sex life with Bobbi. Frances and Bobbi don’t get any of those steadily narrated sex scenes that Rooney is now known for, that are as hot as they are uncluttered. Instead, we get Frances’ shrug of a swoon: “I don’t object when you kiss me. The idea of us sleeping together again has always been exciting.” We can tell!
It is Nick who has access to Frances’ interiority and who, physically and emotionally, gets to reach her depths: “I felt a key turning hard inside my body,” she says, “turning so forcefully that I could do nothing to stop it.” Frances repeatedly describes sex with Nick as getting to experience her own insides: “It was as if Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs.” Does Bobbi never get up in them guts, Frances? When she breaks up with Nick, she cuts into her skin; when Bobbi breaks up with her, she lets hot water run over her skin in the shower until it runs cold. Queer desire stays on the periphery, but het sex goes deep. Quite literally, Nick knows more about Frances’ insides than Bobbi: When Frances is diagnosed with endometriosis (shockingly quickly, but maybe that’s nationalized health care for you), she tells Nick and not her friend. The novel itself ends with Frances’ plea to Nick: “Come and get me,” because ultimately it is Nick and not Bobbi who “gets” her.
There are reasons to dislike Beautiful World, reasons that have nothing to do with the dissonance between the Natalia Ginzburg epigraph that demurs “I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer” and the publicity-kit bucket hats and the Rooney merch pop-up store. In the novel itself, money doesn’t serve as much of a deus ex machina as in her previous works, but only because our writer, Alice, has already made her millions and lives in a castle. Alice has suffered backlash to her early success and has a nervous breakdown, which the novel does not detail. (Another millennial trope: Do not resent my success because I hate myself enough for the both of us.) Rooney’s own writing isn’t as tight here as in her previous books, or at least hasn’t been whittled down by an editor who doesn’t think we need to know every time a character opens or closes the refrigerator. When the close-yet-detached third-person narration is interrupted by intellectually effusive first-person emails, Alice and Eileen’s interchangeably sophomoric politics made me miss the granular narration of gestures.
Departing from craft critique, the most egregious thing about the novel, to me, is that Rooney has all four of her main characters come out on the wrong side of the sex wars, deploring porn and sex work even as she documents their sex lives in detail. There is an exchange when Felix asks Simon if he’s ever been to a strip club, and when Simon says no, Felix admits they’re “awful places.” Eileen freaks when she sees a “rough anal” clip from a “popular porn website” on Felix’s phone (incidentally, there’s quite a bit of highbrow disdain for the proper names of “social media applications” in the book). Felix protests that he wouldn’t call the porn “disturbing,” as Eileen does, and that if she thinks the porn was bad, he’s done worse (taking home a girl when they were both drunk who turned out to be a teenager; impregnating a girl whose “mam had to take her over to England,” i.e., have an abortion). Rooney doesn’t probe their judgmental reactions to sex in the same way she explores her characters’ equally fraught insecurities about money and class because the novel itself seems to share them. Felix mentioning the strip club is a throwaway moment because Rooney herself isn’t thinking much about it.
Perhaps Rooney’s bi characters don’t have queer sex because Rooney writes sex-negative novels about redemptive heterosexuality for straight people who have sex but don’t like it. For all her investment in creating bisexual characters, she seems unfamiliar with the trope of the primarily heteroromantic bisexual cis woman whose insecurity about not being queer enough keeps her from queer intimacy. I assume she isn’t using the right social media applications.
In the email where Alice speculates on sex, it takes her two intermediary paragraphs about the world and beauty (and a hefty set of ellipses) to move from the impossibility of relationships to the impossibility of enjoying contemporary novels. She self-consciously complains that contemporary writers write their “sensitive little novels about ‘real life’” but “know nothing about real life.” (Real Life, incidentally, is a real-life sensitive little novel by Brandon Taylor, but I like it, not least because there is queer sex in it.) While it’s not important to read Alice as a proxy for the author, it’s worth noting that Alice, the writer character in the novel, unconsciously draws a straight (sorry) line from thinking about sex to thinking about novels because, as my Lux colleague Jennifer Wilson pointed out in her review for The New Republic, Rooney’s novels themselves are “rooted in the traditions of the nineteenth-century bourgeois novel, in which the business of coupling up (and consolidating assets) is given primacy, and heroines who opt for other paths usually meet unhappy, even violent, ends, often at their own hands.” Bisexuals, by the way, have high rates of depression, according to research from the Human Rights Campaign and the Trevor Project. Perhaps that explains Alice’s melancholy happy ending.
Beautiful World finishes with two final emails from the friends, which Rooney tacked on in the early months of the pandemic. Lockdown provides the perfect ending for the novel because the world shrinks to coupledom: Alice and Felix, Eileen and Simon. In the face of mounting mass death, all’s well that ends well because we arrive at marriage and babies instead of the alternative — queerness and death? (Eileen is, of course, pregnant, a fact announced with the slightly fascistic and at best tradwifey sentiment that “women all over the world will go on having babies, and I belong with them.”) Alice and Eileen volley electronically one more time about the meaning of it all, which they both find in a quasi-religious experience of some unknowable beyond. Eileen writes: “Most of our attempts throughout human history to describe the difference between right and wrong have been feeble and cruel and unjust, but that the difference still remains — beyond ourselves, beyond each specific culture, beyond every individual person who has ever lived or died.”
Something beyond the individual — but the novel does not reach far beyond them, or the couple, or the nuclear family. Eileen does not consider the fact made abundantly clear to many people in the earliest days of the pandemic: that we must care for one another or die, because we are responsible for one another, and that “we” includes a larger community beyond the people at home. She explains that she loves other people instead of hating them because there is something larger than the rest of us, something more like a “deep buried principle of goodness.” But we should love people not because they are good but because they are people. I imagine that what attracts Rooney to bisexuality as a characterological trait suited for fiction is that, for her, bisexuality means an interest in everyone. But as with the pandemic, for Rooney, this interest in everyone remains hypothetical. Beautiful World ends at the heterosexual horizon, which only offers more of the same.
Natalie Adler is a writer, teacher, and editor at Lux. She is working on a novel.
Illustration by Chloe Scheffe; original photograph courtesy of Mia Harvey.