• Beautiful World, Where Are You?

    Tara K. Menon

    09/2021

     

    Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2021)



    The social set of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You is the same as her first two novels: Trinity-educated millennials living in post-crisis Ireland who go to poetry readings in Dublin, visit museums on trips to Europe, wear bags emblazoned with the logos of London literary magazines, and read the Bible, Shakespeare, Keats, Dostoevsky, Henry James, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde for pleasure. They want to end the patriarchy, they are anti-capitalists, they are dismayed by global inequality. Over drinks at the bar, they fight about who exactly should count as working class. If they lived in New York, you’d find them debating the latest Jacobin article on austerity politics over a glass of orange wine at a table on a Brooklyn sidewalk. They are the Brahmin left—the fictional embodiments of class dealignment.


     Cover image: Farrar, Straus & Giroux


    Before I get to Beautiful World in any detail, here are certain facts all reviewers are obliged to note if they write about Sally Rooney. When she was in college, Rooney was the number one competitive debater in Europe. She wrote a brilliant essay in the Dublin Review about how she found it “depressing and vaguely amoral,” which attracted the attention of a literary agent, which led to her book deal. She was born in 1991. She’s been hailed as “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”—a snappy alliterative phrase that reveals that whoever wrote it, and everybody who keeps using it, knows nothing about people Rooney’s age. She’s also been called the first great millennial novelist. Zadie Smith is a fan. So is Sarah Jessica Parker, and Taylor Swift, and Emily Ratajkowski. Her second novel, Normal People, was longlisted for the Booker Prize and adapted into a glamorous television show.  She was profiled in the New Yorker. Somewhat lamentably, if also inevitably, her novels made their way onto must-have lists in magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue. Rapturous reviews of both her novels have been published in every major publication on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In short, Rooney is a literary sensation. In the English-speaking literary world, she has achieved cult status. Young women love Sally Rooney, but her appeal extends far beyond her own demographic. The people who express the warmest admiration for Rooney are often, in my experience, older men and women. Beautiful World, Where Are You is likely to garner the same ecstatic praise from critics and the same declarations of love from obsessive fans.

    Many reviewers of Conversations with Friends and Normal People claim that Rooney’s appeal lies in the way she writes about class, power, and capitalism. I don’t think so. It is true that Rooney, as she has often said, shares the political beliefs of many of her central characters. But many critics of Rooney have lazily misread the inclusion of characters with left-wing politics alongside Rooney’s declaration that she is an “avowed Marxist” as evidence that her novels are radical. For all the critical gushing, Rooney’s first two novels don’t provide any new insights about class. She is, however, attentive to the way her characters are attentive to social class. Like any thinking millennial, Rooney’s characters are critical of capitalism—we were, after all, handed a burning world—but her novels spend far more time on her characters’ emotions than their ideas. Rooney’s primary subjects are intimacy, friendship, and romance. In essence, Conversations with Friends and Normal People are love stories. The appeal of her fiction is not the way she writes about class. It is the way she writes about desire and—more than anything—her explicit, expert handling of sex.

    Beautiful World centers on four characters: Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon. Alice is a critically and financially successful novelist from Dublin who has spent some time in literary New York. A trademark Rooney heroine, she oscillates between self-effacement and arrogance; she is, at times, painfully insecure and, at others, intimidatingly confident. Like all of Rooney’s women, she also likes to hurt herself occasionally. Alice meets Felix, her love interest, on Tinder in the small town she has moved to after a mental breakdown. Felix does manual shift work in a distribution warehouse and is the only one of the four who didn’t go to Oxford or Trinity. Eileen, Alice’s best friend from Trinity, works at a literary magazine for poverty wages. (At one point, Felix marvels that Eileen, despite her posh university education, makes less money than him.) Eileen reads Dostoevsky in her spare time and once wrote a brilliant essay on Natalia Ginzburg. Eileen is in love with Simon and has been since they were both young. Simon is an advisor for a left-wing parliamentary group with martyr-like qualities and, much to everyone else’s bewilderment, is a practicing Catholic. (In Rooney’s secular Ireland, belief makes you a bit of a freak.) He is five years older than the other three, and they treat him as if he is a different species for it.

    The novel alternates between third person chapters that shift focus between each of the four main characters and first-person emails exchanged between Alice and Eileen. In Normal People, also told in the third person, the intimate narration allowed us to inhabit the minds of individual characters. That narrative technique, often called close third person, is mostly absent in Beautiful World. Instead, Rooney writes in what we might call remote third person. Description largely remains external rather than internal. Rather than seeing the world through the eyes of a central character, we witness it as if we were an on-scene observer watching these characters from afar. Sentences like “They appeared to be about the same age” or “No one else was home, but the layout and interior suggested she was not the sole occupant” are typical. Throughout, the third person narrator avoids both certainty and specificity—words like “appeared” and “seemed” occur repeatedly, and so do indefinite and definite articles instead of names: “a woman sat in a hotel bar” (Alice) or “the men were coming out of the water” (Simon and Felix). At one point, the narration shifts, without reason or explanation, to the imperative tense: “Follow her eyes now and notice the bedroom door left open, a slice of white wall visible through the banister posts.” The prose is extremely spare, even more so than in Rooney’s previous novels. The not entirely omniscient, or at least deliberately reticent, narration feels at once oddly distant and voyeuristic. It also doesn’t make much sense.

    Despite this, as in her previous fiction, character takes precedence over plot. Nothing much happens in Beautiful World—young people like each other, sleep with each other, misunderstand each other, sleep with each other again. Everyone is intelligent and miserable, fighting through the many insecurities that plague millennials. Simon is dissatisfied with his career; Eileen feels like she has failed to live up to her potential; Alice thinks that her writing is politically worthless; Felix hates his awful job. They are lonely and unhappy partly because for all their apparent self-awareness, they are also astonishingly self-deluded. Characters are often uncertain about why they feel what they feel and how others feel about them. Confusion dominates.

    Alice is obviously not Rooney but, as a celebrated and financially successful novelist, is just as obviously her avatar. Rooney’s success has swept her into the upper echelons of literary London and New York, and Beautiful World offers a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a famous novelist—phone calls with agents, talks in crowded bookstores, fully paid trips to European cities. Some of the passages written in Alice’s voice (in her emails to Eileen) evince a coruscating contempt for the New York literary scene and a deep discomfort with the incessant public attention. It is close to impossible to not read Alice’s frustrations with being a famous novelist as Rooney’s own, and equally difficult to feel that Rooney included a famous novelist character for any reason other than to make points about novels and novelists.

    Similarly, it often feels like Felix exists solely for Rooney to make points about the abysmal working conditions at warehouses: freezing temperatures, alienating work, unreliable schedules, unsafe conditions that lead to blistered hands and deep wounds. Rooney draws further attention to these injustices in a chapter which intersperses descriptions of Felix’s daily routine with an account of a day in the life of Alice:

    That morning, while Felix was at work, Alice had a phone call with her agent, discussing invitations she had received to literary festivals and universities. While this phone call took place, Felix was using a handheld scanner to identify and sort various packages into labelled stillage carts, which were then collected and wheeled away by other workers.

    This is fine, admirable even, but if it feels a little on the nose, that’s partly because Felix’s character is paper thin. For all the gruffness and toughness of his interactions with Alice, he is a gentle lamb in bed, constantly asking which words she prefers. When he starts singing at a social gathering, with a voice so beautiful and pure it makes Alice weep, he feels like the modern equivalent of Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper—a romanticized representation of the Irish working class. This is an unusual lapse for Rooney, who has proven herself to be an excellent psychological portraitist.

    In both Normal People and Conversations with Friends, the central relationships unfold over a relatively short period of the time. The timeframe of Beautiful World is similarly short and we see Alice and Felix’s relationship develop over a succession of encounters that are narrated moment by moment. But unlike the radiant heat Nick and Frances generate in Conversations with Friends and Connell and Marianne share in Normal People, Alice and Felix appear to have almost no chemistry. After a first date so unsuccessful it borders on hostile, Alice and Felix, somewhat mystifyingly, start sleeping with each other. Soon she declares herself in love with him; he doesn’t seem to love her at all. Throughout, their relationship feels, if not unbelievable, then at least a little inexplicable.

    Beautiful World also features a relationship with a long and complex past. Eileen and Simon have known each other since childhood—she had a crush on him when he was the handsome older boy next door, they slept together once when she was in college, they’ve been friends throughout. Rooney approaches the narrative challenge of uncovering this past by including long, dry passages of exposition. The choice to tell rather than show is not always successful. The novel falters when describing Simon and Eileen’s history—these passages feel lifeless, devoid of the gratifying urgency of Rooney’s first two novels. Yet, Eileen and Simon do have the intense emotional connection that is characteristic of Rooney’s fictional couples. When she was fifteen and he was twenty, a gulf separated them. Now that she is twenty-nine and he is thirty-four, their age difference is unremarkable, but the novel tries to examine whether it is possible to overcome the power imbalance that existed when their relationship began. The best parts of the novel are the present-day interactions between Simon and Eileen. 

    Rooney is at her strongest when she focuses on the intricacies of individual interactions between people. Her métier is the shifting power dynamics in both social and romantic relationships. She attends to both the struggle for power between two people—partners often take turns trying to be in control—and the way that power can be experienced completely differently by two people in the same relationship. In Rooney’s fiction, couples often have an intimate understanding of what the other needs in bed, and a total inability to understand what they want outside of it. For all the capable, constant flirting, her characters often suffer from an inability to communicate what they really feel.

    In addition to being handed the Salinger mantle, and inviting comparisons to slightly older, accomplished autofictional novelists (Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk), Rooney is regularly likened to the titans of nineteenth-century realism: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James. In an exemplary humblebrag, Rooney once said, “A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” What Rooney and her critics mean is that her novels are not formally experimental; they are traditional realist novels which lean on familiar, even clichéd plots (the adultery novel, the bildungsroman) and she writes about romantic relationships while paying attention to the social position of her characters. Beautiful World takes its formal and political inspiration from a slightly earlier literary genre: eighteenth-century epistolary fiction. Like Mary Wollstonecraft’s Mary and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Rooney’s latest novel uses long missives (in her case, emails exchanged between Alice and Eileen) as a vehicle for political and philosophical issues. This formal choice, occasioned by Rooney’s desire to smuggle mini essays about matters not directly related to the lives of her characters, makes Beautiful World the most ambitious and least successful of Rooney’s novels.

    In Conversations with Friends, Rooney included short instant message exchanges between Bobbi and Frances, but, partly because of the medium, these never rose above superficial rapid-fire exchanges between undergraduates. (To be fair to Rooney, I’m not sure she ever intended them to be more than that.) In this novel, these conversations get more space. The emails touch on wide-ranging topics: “rapacious market capitalism,” beauty, the beauty industry, plastics and microplastics, the contemporary novel, sex, “insincere public apologies,” the Late Bronze Age, meritocracy, injustice, “the misery of actually oppressed peoples,” identity politics, climate change, religious belief. Some of the observations are smart (especially on the weaknesses of identity politics and the possible value of faith) and some of the formulations wry and pithy (“Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended?”). In the back and forth between the two friends, Rooney’s debating skill of being able to present both sides of an argument is on clear display. 

    Most of the emails are imbued with millennial despondency about the future of the world. They also give the overwhelming sense that Rooney is deeply frustrated with the novel writ large (as a form, a political enterprise, an activity worthy of time) and despondent about the merit of her own novels. Alice and Eileen spend much time posing earnest, searching (and, it is worth saying, age-old) questions about the value of fiction: What is the novel for? Are all novels, by virtue of being novels, inescapably bourgeois? Can novels ever serve a political purpose? Alice, disillusioned by the world of publishing and publicity, is deeply pessimistic:

    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. Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasing brutal exploitation of the majority of the human species? Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter?

    Eileen is less skeptical about the novel, but her argument in its defense reveals an even deeper pessimism: “do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life?” Art isn’t the problem, Eileen replies, the world is. She’s right, but it’s hard to feel Rooney isn’t trying to have her cake and eat it too. The most frustrating line of the novel is a throwaway aside in an email written by Eileen: “The contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions) irrelevant.” I found myself desperate to know what Eileen or Alice or Rooney thought those exceptions might be, and what made them different. Yet this novel offers no answers.

    Rooney’s constant handwringing about the art is now de rigeur for some of the best artists of her generation. You’ll find it in Bo Burnham’s recent stand-up comedy special Inside and Michaela Coel’s television show I May Destroy You. What is the point of art, they all ask, in the midst of unspeakable global inequality and a (near) future rendered unthinkable by climate change? I am aware that it is a high bar to expect Rooney to provide a concrete answer to the timeless question about the political utility of art, but Alice’s emails explicitly invite this scrutiny: “My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard. For this reason I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again.”

    It’s hard not to wonder why Rooney hasn’t come to the same conclusion herself. It is perhaps unreasonable to ask a successful novelist to stop writing successful novels, but if one holds the political convictions that Rooney does and harbors the doubts she seems to, it also feels fair to wonder if she might be better off doing something else. There is also a famous model for this: Arundhati Roy. After the blinding success of The God of Small Things, Roy abandoned fiction for activism and used her ability as a writer to pen fierce essays about injustice. But one also suspects that Roy’s sensational debut might be one of those novels that fall into the “with very few exceptions” category. Why not, instead, try to write a novel like that? Again, perhaps this is an outrageously unfair suggestion—how can an Irish Trinity girl be expected to write a convincing novel about the “misery of actually oppressed people” one might reasonably ask. But I’m not sure that the only issue here is content. It is also temper. In Rooney’s world, everyone is perturbed by inequality, but nobody is angry. The difference between a Roy and a Rooney isn’t only who or what they write about, it’s how. When Roy writes about injustice, she is furious. Rooney is despondent.

    The best case for Rooney continuing to write fiction can be found in the third-person sections of Beautiful World. These parts of the novel offer the familiar pleasures of her other work, like the deep, satisfying recognition of seeing the ways we use the internet and technology perfectly reflected on the page. Other so-called internet novels, including those that also came out this year (Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts) often focus on how the internet lets strangers interact. Rooney, on the other hand, is uninterested in the curated social media profiles of influencers that have tens of thousands of followers, or the bizarre inanities that make the news rounds online. Instead, she presents the complex ways in which our relationships with people we know, sometimes intimately, are mediated by the internet and technology. If Lockwood writes about how Twitter has warped our brains and our sense of the world, Rooney writes about the ways we use our iPhones to interact with our friends. She is excellent on the details—the way people type out an entire text and then erase it, the specific misspellings that appear in drunk texts, how we blindly follow Google map instructions, the communal use of a Spotify playlist at a party, opening a private browser to stalk an ex, noting with dismay the number of likes on somebody else’s social media post. Often, Rooney merely presents the physical action. She is able to abandon interiority because she can rely on her readers’ familiarity with each of these actions. She knows that you will understand the host of intense feelings that accompany the knowledge that someone hasn’t replied to a message that the read receipts show that they have read days before.

    One of Rooney’s natural gifts is writing conversation, both spoken and written. Her novels perfectly capture the way Irish millennials talk and text. Here, Eileen is replying to a text that Simon has sent several days ago, the morning after they slept together:

      Eileen: oddly formal tone here Simon

      He stared down at this message for several seconds, and then typed out a response.

      Simon: Was it?

      An animated three-dot ellipsis displayed on-screen, to show that Eileen was typing.

      Eileen: why do men over 30 text like they’re updating a LinkedIn profile
      Eileen: Hi [Eileen], it was great seeing you on [Saturday]. Can we connect again? Try selecting a time and date from the drop down menu.

      Vaguely now he smiled to himself as his thumbs moved over the keyboard.

      Simon: You’re right
      Simon: If only I were a younger man, I would manually turn off the autocaps function on my phone in order to seem more laidback
      Eileen: it’s in settings
      Eileen: I can help you find it if you get stuck

      At the top of the screen, a new email appeared in the ‘Tuesday call’ thread. The opening text displayed as: Hi all. Have just heard from TJ . . . Simon dismissed the notification without opening it, and began typing another message to Eileen.

      Simon: No, that’s ok
      Simon: I’m always copy and pasting that message saying I had a nice time at the weekend, can we see each other again, etc.
      Simon: Never had any complaints before
      Eileen: ahaha

    This is pitch perfect. It is also the twenty-first century version of Elizabeth and Darcy trading clever jibes at a dance. There is nothing flashy in the writing, but it excels in its subtlety and accuracy. Rooney gets so much right: the way millennials tease “elder millennials,” the micro-generational differences in texting etiquette, the apparent disregard for capitalization and punctuation that is actually a performance of inattention, the way our attention moves between flirtatious texts and work emails, “ahaha” instead of “hahaha.” One of the delights of reading Rooney is that her highly identifiable characters are naturals at witty repartee. The readers who see themselves reflected on the page can imagine that they too are always ready with the perfectly crafted killer comeback.

    The texting is good in Rooney’s novels, but the sex is better. The main reason for Rooney’s astonishing popularity is not, as so many critics claim, the subtle, penetrating attention to class dynamics or even the illuminating way she writes about technology. It’s the sex. I am not claiming that no reviews discuss sex (plenty of them do) but that when they do it is often as a parenthetical aside. The critics might have missed that the primary allure of her stories is sex, but everyone involved in the superb Hulu adaptation of Normal People understood it perfectly.

    Rooney is not doing something entirely innovative. Sex in literature is nothing new. Indeed, many writers—Roth, Easton Ellis, Murakami, Salter, Ballard, Doctorow, Rush, Delillo, the list is endless—have written many explicit scenes. But these are routinely atrociously, even laughably bad. The novelists who excel at writing about sex—Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Michael Cunningham, Garth Greenwell—mostly write about gay sex. Across the board, writers of literary fiction routinely fail to write straight sex that is either convincing or arousing. Rooney succeeds on both counts.

    The nature of desire in her fiction—the women all want to submit, the men want to be in control, but gently—is, if not a little troubling, at least quite boring. But the sex itself is beautifully handled. It’s also explicit. Here, for example, is a small portion of a sexual encounter between Eileen and Simon: 

    Passively she let him undress her, watching his hands unbutton her skirt and roll down her underwear. Reaching up under her knee, he lifted her left leg over the back of the sofa and moved her other foot down onto the floor, so her legs were spread wide open, and she was shivering. Ah, you’re being very good, he said. Shaking her head, she let out a kind of nervous laugh. Lightly with his fingers he touched her, not penetrating her yet, and she pressed her hips down into the couch and closed her eyes. He put a finger inside her then and she exhaled. Good girl, he murmured. Just relax. Gently then he pressed another finger inside her and she cried out, a high ragged cry. Shh, he said. You’re being so good. She was shaking her head again, her mouth open. If you keep talking to me like that I’m going to come, she told him. He was smiling, looking down at her. In a minute, he said. Not yet. He took his clothes off, and she lay with her eyes closed, one knee still hooked over the back of the sofa. In her ear he said: And it’s ok if I come inside you? With her hand she clutched at the back of his neck. I really want you to, she said. He closed his eyes for a moment, nodding his head, not speaking. When he entered her, she cried out again, clinging to him, and he was quiet. I love you, she said. He breathed in carefully and said nothing. Looking up at him she asked: Simon, do you like it when I say that? Awkwardly, trying to smile, he said yes. I can feel that you do, she answered. He went on breathing, his upper lip was damp, his forehead.

    The sentences are bold and precise. Rooney slows down and unflinchingly records every act, every gesture, every word. She is particularly good at the many involuntary physical responses of the body—shivers, goosebumps, moans, cries, sudden intakes of breath. What sets Rooney most apart is not only that she takes pains to show that the sex is consensual, indeed intensely desired by both parties, but also that she attends to the sexual pleasure of both the man and the woman. When the characters are enjoying themselves like this, it’s easy for the reader to feel good.

    Sex is not the sole explanation for Rooney’s success. Her prose style helps. Like her earlier novels, Beautiful World is written in simple, straightforward sentences that make for easy, pleasant reading. In Rooney’s unfussy prose, nothing feels superfluous; every word serves a purpose. The plain style does not, as one might assume, indicate a lack of ability. When she wants to, Rooney writes indelible sentences of arresting beauty. She does this sparingly but to great effect. Yet another satisfaction is that her female characters are whip-smart, and they make no apologies for being more brilliant than the men around them. In Rooney’s fiction, the women are brilliant, and the men are beautiful. (You will hear no complaints from me.) They might have insecurities about their feelings, their relationships, their bodies, and they might crave submission in the bedroom, but they are supremely confident in their intellectual ability, and they are emotionally and intellectually invested in their relationships with other women.

    The emails between Alice and Eileen move abruptly but also seamlessly between the political and the personal, the existential and the trivial. One of the technical achievements of Beautiful World is the way Rooney conveys the deep emotional currents that lie below the surface of their relationships. The women freely expound on abstract issues, but they are also angry and frustrated with the concrete behavior of the other. Apparently banal sentences reveal the simmering discontent between Alice and Eileen. When the emails seem at their most meandering, Rooney is most in control. Unlike in Conversations with Friends, there is no romantic attraction between the two female characters, but theirs is a complex, intense relationship nonetheless. Like Frances and Bobbi, Alice and Eileen are capable of hurting each other, and they are both desperate to be loved by the other. The sexual relationships in this novel are between men and women, but the emotional core is the relationship between two women. The climax of the novel is when the tension between the two women comes to the surface, and the most moving line is when Eileen says Alice, “If you weren’t my friend I wouldn’t know who I was.”

    Beautiful World is mostly a disconsolate novel, but in the rare moments of hope, the novel suggests that beauty and solace are to be found in intimacy and friendship. In many ways, this is where Rooney is most convincing: amidst global despair, maybe the only place to find comfort is in our personal relationships. For all the glib quips, self-ironizing, and existential angst, Beautiful World, like Conversations with Friends and Normal People, is a sincere, entertaining novel with a happy ending. Is this enough? In interviews, Rooney has been dismissive of arguments about pleasure as justification for literary production. She might hate that this is what her novels offer, especially given the catastrophic state of the world, but it makes sense that a lot of people want to read them for that. If the novel is politically useless and the only joy is to be found in our private, daily lives, as Rooney seems to believe, then maybe a novel that provides pleasure—a novel about love and sex and friendship, and not a treatise about the myriad issues that plague the late Anthropocene—is the only novel worth writing. Her debating expertise might mean that Rooney can see every position, but it might be time to pick a side.

    Tara K. Menon is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and will begin as an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University in the fall of 2021.

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