Rising Above the Corporate Glut: The Top 25 TV Series in 2022
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:03

Rising Above the Corporate Glut: The Top 25 TV Series in 2022

In 2022 there was a near collapse of the major streaming services. The production of TV series went through a wave of retrenchment and belt-tightening, and tended to become homogenous, looking like they all were rolling off the same conveyor belt.

The other trend in 2022 trend was toward ever-higher budgets as streamers adopted and adapted the ’70s Hollywood model of the blockbuster and the ‘90s cable model of the megahit that branded the company. These mega-budgets of course made it harder for global public television—and much television outside the U.S. is public—to compete, and if they did compete also often forced them to employ U.S. models of design.

In terms of these bloated budgets and what they produce, let’s take a look at the BBC’s The English, a series that has been highly praised. The series is a marvel of British Isles acting as its pilot boasts both Ciarán Hinds as a dastardly landowning station manager and the always marvellous Toby Jones reprising his role as The Bus Driver here transplanted into the West as a stagecoach driver.

However, the series itself, featuring Emily Blunt introduced in extravagant close-ups of first her feet and then her face, is a “woke” Western with a female lead threatened by “the real America,” “a country only full of killers and thieves,” – in other words, Trump’s America. She is befriended by an indigenous Pawnee and she, the Englishwoman, is the voice of reason, with the series having no consciousness of the fact that part of the brutality of the West was the learned behavior transferred from the colonizer England. There is a Shakespearian high/low quality to the language in the contrast between Hind’s flowery dialogue and the Pawnee’s terse grunts, but we’ve seen this before and executed better in the language in Deadwood and in the narrative of the English woman stranded in the West in Hell on Wheels.

As opposed to the high-budget pretention of The English we have the low-budget “B-film” aesthetic of the CW’s Walker: Independence. It’s that lowest form of series, a spinoff of a series called Walker Texas Ranger that is itself a remake. The setup is similar; a woman from Boston stranded in the violent West but with a much stronger questioning of the power structure that is taking shape in that region. The Pinkertons, ace strikebreakers, are at first introduced as saviours but then highly questioned when shown to be in league not only with the railroad, which is transforming the West through the power and speculation of Eastern wealth, but also with the town’s corrupt sheriff.

This series is league’s ahead of the BBC’s better-looking, paint-by-the-numbers West. Proof that bloated budget and A-list actors do not always a better series make and proof that even in the belly of the beast, the lower-budget “B-film” aesthetic is capable of providing charming and politically charged series that stand outside the norm.

And that is a good way of introducing this year’s Top 25 (and 5 Worst) series which celebrates global resistance to corporate streaming extravagance, and low-budget freedom to challenge preconceived conceptions and introduce socially relevant content into a form that is in danger of atrophying, because of the excess money and the pressure to produce results in the form of subscriptions.

This year I watched 156 series and found roughly one-quarter of them worth watching, but I also passed on about another 350 series that just from the description seemed too derivative or too frivolous to even bother checking out. This means that I found about 8 percent of the total content worth watching, encompassing 13 countries, out of what is claimed to be a bounteous cornucopia of content.

The number of series of course conceals the growing homogenization as each strives to be just different enough from those surrounding them to attract audiences, while not different enough to challenge them and disturb the palliative effect of a mode of digital production that is designed to conceal the fact that the power of the West is fading. Meanwhile those on top grab ever more for themselves and leave audiences with the false hope of streamers which deliver actual bounty only to their shareholders – even as that bounty decreases in value.

Top 15

The Porter — This BET (Black Entertainment Television) + and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) series highlights the struggle of black Pullman workers one hundred years ago to unionize. The Porter (see image above) is a highly nuanced series about the various kinds of black experience, including Afro-Caribbean, in a Montreal neighborhood that validates all forms of black economic practice, legitimate and so-called illegitimate, but also values solidarity and regard for the community over personal gain. A one-of-a-kind series, unfortunately, that was the year’s highlight.

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Billy The Kid re-envisions the West and the Western

Billy The Kid — the West and the outlaw tale as you’ve never seen it before. The series, available on Amazon, recounts Billy’s early history as an Irish immigrant in the tenements of New York and then as he experiences the prejudice of American society firsthand and through the treatment of his Mexican friend and later in the season as he breaks with the tyranny of a landholder terrorizing Mexican farmers. The series, while delivering aspects of Western gunplay, is much more about how those who came to America hoping to escape from under the thumb of the British in Ireland. In fact they found themselves terrorized by that same group and their descendants in a supposedly wide-open land that, as the series charts, was becoming more and more closed down as capital centralized. A superb recasting of the legend.

The Silence — This joint Ukrainian/Croatian production, on HBO Max, is about an understated element of the economy of both countries, the trafficking of young women and the involvement at the highest levels of both countries in that trade, and ends with a Twin Peaks type triple cliffhanger. Alas, because after the Ukrainian war, as that country becomes a shill for and empty shell of Western neo-liberal capitalism, while being held as an enduring model of resistance, the second season will likely never happen as it is now impossible to cast a critical eye on a country that, before the war, was recognized as the most corrupt in Europe. Another casualty of an unnecessary war.

Oussekine — Disney +’s first European series recounts the savage death of a young Algerian student in the Parisian Latin Quarter at the hands of the police. The series is exceptional on the role of the police, the cover-up at the highest levels of French society that persists to this day and the ability of a family, itself witness to a mass execution of Algerians by the police upon its arrival in the country, to persevere and push for justice in a racialized society which denies the existence of any official prejudice.

Joe Pickett — Paramount +’s counter to its reactionary white landowner series Yellowstone. This series, also set in the West, follows a Wyoming game warden as he attempts, with the aid of his lawyer wife, a Native American policewoman and a black Survivalist, to counter the influence of the state’s power centre in Jackson Hole, site of the yearly global finance summit.  Pickett’s “detecting” involves his knowledge of the increasingly perilous position of wildlife in the state and the mystery involving a land grab hinges on his knowledge of natural habitats and his refusal to take the money and instead become a land manager consultant who betrays the public’s trust. It’s a fascinating noir that remains true to its nature-in-peril setup. Relevant too, in this year of the COP 15 Biodiversity summit, which announced that over one million species are threatened with extinction because of the kind of exploitation the series illustrates.

 Snowpiercer — Season 3 of this TNT series, available on Netflix, opens with a bang as the stratified power structure on the train on which earth’s survivors travel is upset and Mr. Wilford, the neoliberal Richard Branson/Elon Musk figure, is dethroned. The series then coasts through the middle episodes but ends this penultimate season with a thrilling compromise between competing opinions on the train about what to do next with both parties—though one position is dictated by fear and the other by hope—able, minus the train’s CEO, to recognize the legitimacy of each position and effect a compromise that sets up next season’s finale. Powerfully structured addition to Bong Joon-ho’s film that expands and adds an additional layer of complexity to the film, rather than just ripping it off.

Babylon Berlin — Season 4 of this German series, coming soon to Netflix, is produced by the European satellite company Sky and continues to challenge American outlandish budgets in its lavish recreation of a decaying Weimar Republic in the ’20s and early ’30s. The police detective Gereon Roth, previously a staunch supporter of democracy, opens the series in full Brownshirt regalia in a 1930 New Year’s Eve Kristallnacht destruction of Jewish property. Meanwhile, his erstwhile protegee on the force, Charlotte Ritter, finds herself in trouble as she attempts to conceal the activity of her sister, forced through desperate poverty to become a serial burglar.

This season deals majestically with the coming force of Nazi goons and their protectors in the upper echelons of Weimar society, as well as encompassing a plot about corrupt cops who feast off the booty of thieves. Episode 8, of 10, follows too closely its Volker Kutscher source material and descends briefly into gangster Godfather and Tarantinesque brutality, but then rights itself and returns its focus to the actual danger of the fascist takeover. Fascinating as always. Along the same lines, though set in 1962, is the BBC’s Ridley Road which spotlights the brave efforts of a young Jewish woman to infiltrate a pack of British neo-Nazis.

Alaska Daily –This ABC television series, streaming on Hulu, proves there is still life left in network, or linear, TV. Hilary Swank stars as a tough-nosed, no-nonsense reporter outcast to the backwoods of Alaska on a local paper because of a major story gone awry. There she confronts the prejudice surrounding a botched investigation of the disappearance of native women, her publisher who tries to steer the paper toward supporting a corrupt Senate candidate and her own white whale, a general pilfering Pentagon funds. By the team that brought you the film Spotlight but much tougher than that film, undoubtedly in part due to the influence of co-producer Swank herself who brings her “does-not-suffer-fools-gladly” persona to the small screen as she calls out not only lying officials but also refuses to indulge in romantic liaisons which compromise her integrity. And on network TV – wow!

After the Verdict/Savage River — Australian series, produced respectively on Australian private and public TV, with that country currently the leader in socially relevant drama. The first brings together four middle-class jurors who believe they may have made a mistake in freeing a woman who possibly hoodwinked them with her status and privileged attitude. The series is actually not about the too-easily-guessed mystery but rather the troubles plaguing a Western middle class as it attempts to come to grips with a declining lifestyle and finds its best way of coping is not by denial but by cooperation.

Savage River focuses on the plight of a young working-class woman who returns to the town of the title after serving time for a murder and finds herself again the subject of an investigation into another murder. The laying bare of the power dynamics of the town, whose economy is based around a sheep slaughterhouse being put up for corporate sale, and the young woman’s active search to expose the true source of decay in the town, make this a series to contend with. 

Borgen – This Danish series streams on Netflix and portrays the complexity of Scandinavian multiparty politics. It seemed to have exhausted itself after three seasons but revived for a fourth and final season on the subject of the exploitation of Greenland, the pearl of Arctic oil drilling. Birgitte, now a Danish minister, at first takes the ecological position, refusing drilling against the Greenlanders themselves who want the benefits. Under pressure from Denmark and the U.S., she then switches positions and betrays her ideals as her associate in Greenland betrays an Inuit woman with whom he has a dalliance. She is punished for her lack of conviction, proving that women in government under a colonialist system are no more infallible or likely to reform that system than men. It’s a bitter ending to a series which debates all sides of an important issue.

We Own This City – This mini-series, by the creators of The Wire, charts police corruption in Baltimore for over a decade. It describes “The Thin Blue Line” of cops protecting cops as closer to the mafia law of omerta, of silence, than as an institutional means of survival against hostile neighbourhoods. Jenkins, the honored leader of a squad, not only steals and then resells drugs from street dealers, but also holds forth on pettier levels of corruption as he counsels his men on how to cheat on overtime. A powerful statement of the series, carried over from The Wire, is that this corruption is also a result of the failed “War on Drugs”, which “achieved nothing but brutality, full prisons and a complete lack of trust between police departments and their cities.”

Ms. Marvel – In general Marvel Studios television took a reactionary step back this year (See Moon Knight in 5 worst), but this series about a Pakistani teen in Jersey City was a quantum leap forward, up and out of the Marvel universe. The series, which at first seemed to be simply another elaborate advert for that universe, took a sudden turn when the family’s trip to Karachi included a monumental flashback as our superhero encounters her relative fleeing India on the last train out of the British partitioning of the two countries. On her return, the supervillains she contends with are well-armed U.S. federal agents attempting to capture her and wreak havoc on a community which comes together to thwart them. The series expands the Marvel Universe and through its partitioning flashback its “multiverse” and illustrates how that scheme can become something more than a catalogue of Marvel products. Will this model be followed? Probably not.

Andor – Another quasi-superhero series, this one in the Star Wars universe, that surprised by its, and The Walking Dead season 11’s, being the series which, though obliquely, best challenged the U.S. empire. Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is superb as the Bogart/Casablanca reluctant warrior against an empire that attempts to exert total control on a downtrodden galaxy. The series debates resistance against what seems to be an all-powerful foe as Andor, in a series of masterfully planned and shot escapades, eludes capture on his home planet, pulls off a payroll heist, breaks out of an impregnable imperial prison, and returns to the planet in disguise to save a friend and view his mother’s funeral. Would that more of those inhabitants, now firmly in the ideological grip of the U.S. empire, had Andor’s courage to challenge its accelerating drift into global war, as all the while it increases its mind control on its citizenry.

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The Walking Dead vs. the neoliberal Commonwealth 

The Walking Dead—11th and final season of this cable favourite, before splintering off into 3 separate series, has the survivors of a zombie disaster contending against their most powerful foe, the neoliberal Commonwealth, which is ruled over by a Hilary Clinton prototype who proclaims that all is well even as she employs ever more repressive measures to maintain control. The unruly band of survivors cannot live under the stifling abundance/repression of the Commonwealth and inevitably come into conflict with how it limits personal and group freedom. The season 11 showrunner Angela Kang has done a superb job not only in winding up the series but in proving that in the nether regions of genre and apocalyptic TV, which more learned critics and viewers have given up for dead, lurks the possibility of the deepest and most penetrating critique of the supposed benevolence but actual violence behind the current bourgeois order. Who knew?

Hightown/Before We Die—Sometimes series are simply well-wrought and compelling without having overt social content. Season 2 of Hightown is an example though it also continued its portrayal of the effects of the current drug scourge Fentanyl on a Provincetown, here portrayed as a fishing town struck down, as is its police detective heroine, by this disease. Both are attempting to recover from its insidious effects. The third and final season of the Swedish series Before We Die wrings, as do the previous two seasons about respectively the Croatian mob and a league of corrupt cops, every last drop of suspense from this tale of a police detective mother and her undercover son. A Hitchcockian tightening of the noose around both characterizes season 3 as the series ends prematurely as both characters finally reconcile. It’s an unusual premise and stunning follow-through of a series which is the best undercover series since the 1980s extravaganza Wiseguy. Also worth noting is another Swedish noir The Dark Heart ­(on Mubi) about a ruthless land baron father who lords it over his daughter, the local townspeople, and the environment which he brutally strips. The daughter’s awakening and revenge is the subject of this exceptional series.  

Honourable Mentions

Dark Winds—One of five notable indigenous series encompassing two continents, all of which deal with peoples under pressure. This most prominent, but not the best, series, on AMC+, features Indigenous actor Zahn McClarnon (also on Reservation Dogs) as a tribal cop contending with a history of abuse including forced sterilization on Navaho land and a racist FBI agent as he attempts to solve a brutal robbery. Canada’s indigenous channel produced another season of Tribal, available on Amazon, which highlighted again the tensions between Canadian and reservation police. Australia’s Troppo centered in Queensland, also on Amazon, involved an indigenous, aboriginal female aiding a disgraced cop in solving a murder that looks simply like a crocodile fatality. The Australian indigenous channel likewise produced True Colors (on Peacock) about an aboriginal cop who must solve the murder of a young girl amid the new wealth about to arrive in the local town because of the now global prominence of aboriginal art. Finally, The Tourist, on Netflix, tracks an amnesiac Irish visitor to the outback as he struggles to regain his memory and to figure out his relationship to his indigenous girlfriend as, all the while, he is being tracked by gangland killers. Each in the detective genre, but each employing that genre to investigate aspects of the inequality of global indigenous treatment.

Women of the movement – Season one of this ABC miniseries, now on Hulu, recounts the story of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmet Till, who launched a nationwide campaign to secure justice for her son, a victim of Mississippi racism. Actually, a multi-point of view recounting of the murder from the perspective of not only the mother but also the colonized population of African Americans in that state as they slowly find their voice and come forward in one of the earliest moments of the civil rights struggle.

Run the Burbs—Canadian series, featuring a mixed Asian and Indian family, that recognizes a cosmic demographic shift in celebrating not the whiteness but the diversity of the suburbs, making of those former conservative enclaves a multicultural utopia. Hats off also to the Nigerian-wedding-in-Lagos episodes of Bob Hearts Abishola and especially the wedding itself where the suburban Detroit sock vendor and his family integrate themselves into the joyful rituals of the African celebration.

From –There have been many post-Lost series with a group marooned somewhere (La Brea, Manifest, The Leftovers) but this series, on EPIX, which stars a haunting Harold Perrineau from Lost, about a group who do not know where they have surfaced and have to investigate the strange rules of their new world is, for its intriguing set-up and its enduring multicultural characters, the best.

Red Light—This series, streaming on Netflix, a product of Belgium and Netherlands TV, centers on three women, with its lead character a sex worker trapped by her pimp. The connection between the three and especially the struggle of the lead character with her own demons to find herself worthy to break away from her tormentor drives this series as it highlights trafficking between Antwerp and Amsterdam.

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Abundance vs. Disparity in Conversations With Friends

Conversations With Friends – This second Hulu adaptation of a novel by the class-conscious writer Sally Rooney, after last year’s triumphal Normal People, is only superficially concerned with the class elements of the interactions of its four characters but is generous in the way it suggests that “normal” bourgeois relations are limited and instead describes the abundance available in transcending them.

Abbot Elementary — ABC again, the most progressive of the network stations, broadcast this series, streaming on Hulu, that highlights the plight of both teachers and students as they attempt to confront the war on public-school budgets as more money goes to more segregated and upper- class charter schools as well as to the U.S. military and the war in Ukraine. The single-minded focus of this series on this lack marks it as a landmark socially adept sitcom. 

Chivalry/Reboot—Speaking of sitcoms, the two funniest were first Steve Coogan’s romcom pairing of an aging producer and a liberated director, Sarah Solemani, who is more than his match. Season one ends with her explaining she will not be with him because: “1) You’re too selfish and won’t be a good father, 2) I’m married and 3) You’ll leave me for a 25-year-old in 5 years.” Wise and wisecracking about the “new Hollywood” attempting and often backsliding in letting go of its misogynist ways. The first scene of Steve (Modern Family) Levitan’s Hulu series Reboot is one of the funniest of the year as it skews the lack of creativity in a network meeting about recirculating old series. Unfortunately, the rest of the series then jettisons that satire somewhat in favor of Levitan’s usual warm and fuzzy family relations, the most egregious of which is Paul Reiser’s, a co-head writer on the rebooted show, obnoxious attempts to reconcile with his also-in-charge daughter. Reiser, from the earlier Mad About You, is a traditional loud-mouthed, obnoxious sitcom character who in this series is saved, tolerated, and condoned by his willingness to change in a series of “heartfelt” moments that belie the more vicious, and more accurate, satire that surrounds these moments. 

North Sea Connection/The Cleaning Lady—Both series highlight populations in peril. The Irish series is about methamphetamine being brought into that country by the “entrepreneurial” activities of the brother of a woman who operates a fishing trawler on the coast. The series spotlights the way survival in this remote, formerly self-sufficient village in the wake of the attack on self-sufficiency by the global import economy, almost necessitates criminal activity. The first season of Fox’s The Cleaning Lady, based on an Argentine series and set in Las Vegas, is an apt description of the compromises this family of two working-class illegal immigrant mothers must make in the face of the constant onslaught unleashed against them by employers, the underworld, and the government. In the second season the show loses its way, jettisons the plight of the women, and moves towards the gangster plot in a way, miraculously avoided in season one. Both series available on Hulu.

The White Lotus—Season 2 of Mike White’s exploration of the callousness of an American privileged class as they journey abroad, here in Sicily, while often right on point, in an ending that seemed to reconcile the worst behavior of the most entitled couple, compromised its critique and for that is booted down to Honorable Mention. Not since Henry James has an American writer chronicled the upper classes with such unromantic clarity and it is hoped that the next, already commissioned season, will return to the colonized/colonizer moment of season one’s look at LA characters frolicking amid the quasi-poverty of the Hawaiian natives.

Worst 5

The Gilded Age—This high-budget recreation of an upper-class New York at the turn of the last century was compared to Edith Wharton. A not very adept comparison though because Wharton had a sharp social eye that she cast on the contradictions of that life, whereas this series simply wants to validate wealth as it gazes uncritically on its social-climbing characters. The supposed tension between old wealth and new wealth is simply instead a celebrating of the ultimate compatibility of both. In the same vein is Apple TV+’s Severance, which is a supposed “expose” of the alienation of work and private life but which instead functions as a smokescreen to conceal the real-life work grievances that prompted organizing of Apple’s workers to have more say in a workplace that silences them while claiming it is a progressive space in touch with their needs. Not greenwashing but workwashing of the real tensions in the Apple “family” by focusing on a false issue.

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Dumb and Dumber in The Peacemaker

Peacemaker—A waste of a James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy and the new head of Warner’s DC franchise) script. John Cena as the lead doofus is not funny and neither is the show which attempts to be a DC satire of action series and instead reads more like Marvel’s Howard the Duck. Outdone in the stupid action hero category by Reacher which at least had, in its treatment of a not to bright action hero, as Richard Widmark was once described, “the courage of its own sordid convictions.” Worse still was the highly praised Pam and Tommy, an empty portrayal of an empty movie-star, rock-star couple, distinguished by Seth Rogan’s disgustingly putrid working-class builder who is nothing but a mass of seething resentments. Both the series and Rogan are being honoured this award season.

Fairview—This inside the entertainment industry beltway series blatantly celebrates LA “culture” with its group of media saturated and overly savvy kids with nothing on their minds beyond their self-referential knowledge of the industry. Yuck. Gives new meaning to the word “insipid.”

Moon Knight/She Hulk—Two Marvel series that rather than expanding the Marvel universe, illustrated the potential retrograde quality of that space. The first was the worst. Oscar Isaac’s at first likable dweeb character instead turns into a psychotic murderous hero in pursuit in Egypt of Ethan Hawke’s turbaned villain in episodes that hark back to the worst of colonial Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s. She Hulk on the other hand constituted a geek’s idea of what female liberation looks like with the lawyer, once she transforms into the green monster, completely forgetting her case against a corporate polluter and instead grappling with a costumed unidentified female supervillain and then joining a corporate law firm. Not a depiction of a professional career woman’s lives and traumas, as it pretends to be, but rather simply a billboard on which to advertise other Marvel products. Good for the company, not so good for viewers.

The Sandman—British DC superhero/horror hokum, featuring upper-class British accents in a 1916 manor that simply reads like generic whiteness.  This is the kind of series that had it been allowed to continue Lovecraft Country, with its Afro-centric take on the horror genre, would have pre-empted. Unfortunately, since that honoured series was cancelled after one season, this kind of churlish childness continues to be reborn. 

In search of the Marxist novel
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:03

In search of the Marxist novel

Published in Fiction

30-year-old Irish author Sally Rooney has been in the headlines following her refusal to grant the translation rights of her new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) to the Israeli Modan publishing house. Seventy prominent writers backed her decision in a statement in November. 

In May, Rooney had been among over 1,600 artists who condemned Israel’s “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” in a ‘Letter Against Apartheid’. Israeli apartheid, they said, is “perpetuated by international complicity; it is our collective responsibility to repair this harm.” The signatories to the new statement reaffirmed their support for the Palestinian people, saying:

Like her, we will continue to respond to the Palestinian call for effective solidarity, just as millions supported the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. We will continue to support the nonviolent Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

The authors include Irish Kevin Barry, Ronan Bennett, Seán Hewitt, and Rita Ann Higgins from Ireland; Rachel Kushner, Eileen Myles and Eliot Weinburger from the US; Monica Ali, Caryl Churchill, China Miéville and Kamila Shamsie from the UK.

Two bookstore chains with a presence in both Israel and in the occupied territories responded to Rooney’s decision by removing her novels from their stock. So who is Sally Rooney and what are her books about?

Rooney was born in 1991 in Castlebar in the West of Ireland and describes herself as a Marxist. Her mother ran a cultural centre and her father worked for Telecom until it was privatised. Rooney studied English at Trinity College. In an interview Rooney said: “I don’t know what it means to write a Marxist novel. I don’t know and I would love to know. It is the analytical structure that helps me make sense of the world around me.”

Alienated relationships prevail

Her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), focuses on two young women, Frances and Bobbi, who, having met at school, are now studying in Dublin and also performing artists. The novel is primarily about sexual relationships among young people, about the question of true love and genuine friendship in an environment where none of this seems to be possible. Most unusually for a contemporary novel, both protagonists see themselves as politically left-wing, even communist:

Bobbi and my mother got along famously. Bobbi studied History and Politics, subjects my mother considered serious. Real subjects, she would say, with an eyebrow lifted at me. My mother was a kind of social democrat, and at this time I believe Bobbi identified herself as a communitarian anarchist. When my mother visited Dublin, they took mutual enjoyment in having minor arguments about the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes Bobbi would turn to me and say: Frances, you’re a communist, back me up.

Bobbi is the most obviously interested of the two in social and international issues, she likes to sing anti-war songs, is well-informed and ready to discuss Syria, Algeria, Palestine. Frances, the narrator, comes from a single-parent working-class household. She is the only character in the novel’s plot who is not wealthy, the only one who has no money. While she is very aware of this, money is not something her friends think about.

Despite recurring references to left-wing views, however, they do not directly inform the novel’s plot, which revolves mainly around sexual relationships. But in a way, this is the crux of the matter. What we encounter in this first novel will characterise the next two: there is a lack of love in most relationships. The young people at the centre of the plot are unable to say that they love each other, find it hard to acknowledge a partner as a ‘girlfriend’/ ‘boyfriend’; there is a lack of genuine commitment. Unconditional love seems impossible. Alienated relationships prevail. Many of the young people are very lonely, have no real self-esteem, are damaged in their humanity. No help is given to them.

In Rooney’s second novel, Normal People (2018), the focus is again on young people, their relationships in their final year at school and follows the two main characters, Marianne and Connell to Trinity College Dublin, which the author knows from her own experience. Again, one of the two is a working-class child with a single mother, the other comes from a dysfunctional wealthy family. In both novels, the working-class child’s mother is the one older character that readers get to know a little better, although drawing people over thirty is not Rooney’s forte.

As in Conversations with Friends, the central theme is sexual relationships and how people treat one another. The plot is a little more complex, goes a little deeper than in the first novel. Once more, it is striking how left-wing the main characters think – and that they stand by their convictions, never deviating from them. That they recommend reading the Communist Manifesto seems perfectly normal. Connell’s mother is also left-wing.

Culture as class performance

Class distinctions are even more clearly highlighted in Normal People, and it’s emphasised that Trinity continues to be the elite university of the bourgeoisie. The larger social themes of class struggle and political protest are echoed by the conflictual relationships between the characters, and sometimes explicitly linked, as when the two main characters actually take part in a protest demonstration:

They went to a protest against the war in Gaza the other week with Connell and Niall. There were thousands of people there, carrying signs and megaphones and banners.

Rooney is also keen to highlight the class nature of the culture industry. Connell goes to a literature reading at the university:

It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.

This quest for alternatives to the capitalist culture industry takes up even more space in Rooney’s latest novel, named after a Schiller poem Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). Questions of interest to the author are discussed primarily in an email correspondence running through the book between Alice, the young, successful author, and her friend Eileen. The discussion covers a whole spectrum of political and philosophical-historical issues from a left-wing perspective. On the contemporary novel, Alice writes:

The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the ‘main characters’ of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful.

And although political views occupy an increasingly large space in the novels, they still stand apart from the action, which again revolves around sexual relationships and friendships, around young people, some of whom hate themselves, and who are somehow damaged.

While the endings of the first two novels give only vague hope, this third one offers an alternative. It speaks for Rooney’s growing skill that this alternative is woven into the action of the novel and arises organically from it. This way out of alienation comes as at a certain cost for the woman concerned, who will now put motherhood first. However, it is unlikely that Rooney means this in absolute terms; it is what happens to this character and is not generalised as an exclusive alternative. One need only to look at this character’s partner to understand this.

Marxist readers will also be interested in Rooney’s underlying interest in religion for solace. She has stated:

How do people console themselves through periods of immense suffering? Capitalism doesn’t really have an answer (…) it doesn’t always help to read Karl Marx.

It is curious that the artist Rooney sees no role for art as a solace for the psyche, the thought at the heart of Keats’s To Psyche. Rooney’s position may well spring from her dim view of the arts under capitalism.

All art is political. Sometimes, it is the politics of turning a blind eye, or opening casements on faery lands forlorn, as Keats put it. Rooney does not write escapist literature, but a kind that confronts alienation. Her novels depict alienated relationships, alongside explicit political statements by her characters – who would no doubt stand with Rooney in her solidarity with the Palestinians. She understands that literature written from a Marxist perspective needs to go deeper than having characters make progressive political statements. Its political meanings must also be skilfully expressed in the plots and the actions of her characters, as in novels like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Rooney’s novels have struck a chord with many people worldwide because her readers recognise their own sense of isolation. It is likely that Rooney will increasingly forge her characters’ views with what they do in her novels, and the alternatives they explore.