THE EPISTOLARY NOVEL hits inboxes in Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Eileen is a smart and woefully underpaid editorial assistant in Dublin. Her friend Alice shares a partial biography with Rooney: she’s a well-spoken novelist grappling with raging success and exasperating celebrity before the age of 30. In their email exchanges, Alice and Eileen parse the slow violence of their contemporary moment — imminent environmental catastrophe, xenophobic conservative politics, and, by the novel’s end, an ongoing global pandemic. In Rooney’s attempt to imagine the world radically otherwise, she returns to two venerable national devotions: Irish Catholicism and James Joyce.
The recuperation of Catholicism is staged most overtly through Eileen’s romantic interest — fair-haired heartthrob Simon, a childhood crush that has turned fitfully into an adult one, and a regular churchgoer with a prehistory that reads more like hagiography. From an early age, Simon has been polite, clean, and plagued by romantic fits of epilepsy. When Eileen and her sister misbehaved as children, “their mother Mary asked them why they could not be more like Simon Costigan, who was not only well behaved but had the added dignity of ‘never complaining.’” His virtue has followed him to Dublin, where he now works in government, crusading on behalf of climate justice and refugees. And while the novel makes clear that Simon’s family is not devout, the stoic intergenerational traumas of anti-Catholic colonial oppression can still be perceived: “[H]e grew up in an emotionally repressive family, and he’s fucked up,” one of the characters posits, “He can’t say what he needs.”
Alice’s paramour, Felix, a townie warehouse worker dressed exclusively in joggers whom she meets on the internet after moving to a seaside village, serves up the obvious critique. “[H]e sounds like a headcase,” Felix says of Simon. “In this day and age a person believes all that?” With his contemplation of the priesthood and his kneeling-by-the-bedside prayers, golden boy Simon does feel somewhat out of time in a contemporary novel. The Catholic Church in Ireland is on the wane, and Felix isn’t the only one perplexed by Simon’s parochial worldview. “[H]ow is it possible for me to admire someone for believing something I don’t believe, and don’t want to believe,” Eileen writes to Alice, “and which I think is manifestly incorrect and absurd?”
Rooney is able to lean into this motif partly because she aestheticizes Catholicism instead of treating it as strict theology. Alice moves to the Atlantic coast, recreating the westward pilgrimage so many of the Irish Revivalists — Yeats, Synge, Augusta Gregory — took as they sought to escape Anglo influence and find a supposedly more authentic Irish culture. The house she rents by the sea is an old rectory, and she fills its defunct and potentially haunted rooms with paperback books, cartons of ice cream, and dinner parties so sumptuous that their glimmering cutlery and guttering candles seem straight out of an Edith Wharton novel. Similarly, while Simon is framed as a Papist, his characterization is also crammed with details that absolve him from the faith’s more dogmatic views. He’s tolerant of queer folks, for instance, and has premarital sex.
The novel’s treatment of sex trades on old tropes — the simmer of the sacred and the profane. But Rooney’s signature idiom — frankly erotic and insistently romantic — carries these scenes. Simon and Alice wade into some sub-dom lite. He calls her a good girl; she takes direction. “Jesus Christ,” he says when he cums. In one postcoital scene, Eileen and Simon attend mass together at a particularly iconic copper-domed church in Rathmines. “What if I think bad thoughts at mass?” Eileen asks titillatingly. Simon assures her: “We didn’t do anything bad.” The parish is named, notably, the Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners. When they arrive, the smell of incense, the lush velvet curtains on the confessionals, and Simon “laying his hands on hers” give their liaison a sacramental cast.
Yet the symbols and stories that animate Irish Catholicism are not relegated only to church; they are everywhere in the novel. A character wears a “beatific expression”; a British politician makes an “offensive statement” about Bloody Sunday; and when Eileen is comforted by the knowledge that Simon is somewhere in the city, Dublin seems to her “like an advent calendar concealing him behind one of its million windows.” Catholicism comes to appear less like a religion and more like an inviting aesthetic principle. This approach can be thorny. “I am not going to join a convent, nor am I even Catholic,” Alice writes, “as far as I know” — thus making it apparent that the descriptor may be more than a spiritual designation. Catholicism, in Ireland, is also deeply tangled with ethnic and cultural identities.
The characters seem less focused on these well-rehearsed nuances; their interest is Keatsian. As Alice writes to Eileen, “In Catholic doctrine, as far as my understanding goes, beauty, truth and goodness are properties of being which are one with God. God kind of literally ‘is’ beauty.” Like Eileen attaching a PDF of an Audre Lorde essay, this comment may be a bit flip, but it still provides a compelling shorthand.
But if Catholicism is put on blast, Joyce resides on the lower frequencies. While many readers will recognize Eileen’s whispered “yes, yes” during orgasm as an allusion to the final scene of Ulysses (1920), the links between Beautiful World and the last story of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), “The Dead,” may be harder to spot.
There are multiple points of connection between the story and the novel. Joyce’s Molly Ivors, in one example, seems a lamp-lit ancestor of Alice and Rooney’s other whip-smart women. She’s educated, articulate, and, despite her best efforts, unnerving to men. Felix can hardly believe that Alice doesn’t relish her potential to intimidate. “But you know the way you act,” Felix says. “Putting the fear of God into people.” “You may find it hard to believe this,” Alice replies, “but when I meet people, I actually try to be nice.”
As in “The Dead,” the incontrovertible moment happens at a house party. When Felix takes the others to a friend’s birthday celebration, he warns that “sometimes these things involve a bit of singing.” And when the party devolves into an impromptu session, Felix — a bit of a bird, it turns out — sings the same song that Joyce’s soirée features, “The Lass of Aughrim.” It’s a doleful tune about a poor young mother with a mop of hair who takes her infant child, born out of wedlock and already cold in her arms, up to the manor to beg the dubious father, a local lord, to be let in. In Felix, we find what Joyce calls “the old Irish tonality.” Rooney describes his voice as “rising to fill the quiet and then falling very low, so low it almost had the quality of silence.”
Rooney plays dumb about the Joyce reference. “For some reason,” she writes opaquely, “because of the low rich quality of his voice, or because of the melancholy lyrics of the song, or perhaps because of some prior association the melody brought to her mind, Alice’s eyes filled with tears as she watched him.” The lyric evokes the treacherous colonial landscape of Aughrim as well as the historical disparities of ethnicity, class, and education in the room. Felix is not a reader, and no one else seems to make the connection to the wreck-your-life romance of “The Dead.” To know the association and how it bears on the scene’s atmosphere is to stand in the kitchen with Alice, her cheeks glistening, or perhaps to regard your friend from the doorway as Eileen, who would also know it, does. And if you don’t know, perhaps you’re just staring at another weeping woman, as Joyce’s protagonist did when he gazed uncomprehendingly at his wife from the bottom of the stairs.
It would be awful and untrue to suggest that Alice and Eileen are superior for being the only ones at a party to have read a modernist short story. And they don’t cop to it, of course; they praise Felix’s musicality brightly instead. But somehow, the things of which they are silently aware impart a sense of moving alienation just the same.
Many critics have compared Rooney’s straightforward prose to Hemingway. But the emphasis on spare language belies a certain narrative tenderness that I more closely associate with writers like Shirley Hazzard or Natalia Ginzburg, who supplies the novel’s epigraph. Emotional registers that in Hemingway’s hands would be schmaltz are in Rooney’s disquietingly taut.
Joyce is of course the opposite of spare, but the novel begs the comparison. An apostate of Catholicism, his writing, too, returned to its signs and symbols, its miracles and mysteries, obsessively. And though he lived in self-imposed exile, Joyce penned vexed love letters to his natal city. It was a sentimental object lesson for him. “[I]f I can get to the heart of Dublin,” he said, “I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” For all his alienations, Joyce, like Rooney, was still a romantic.
If Beautiful World, Where Are You feels out of time, that’s because it’s an elegy for the era in which it occurs. If it isn’t a perfect novel, it is a tender one. Its retrospective gaze kindles its potential futurity. And believing in the future is, after all, an act of faith.
Acknowledgment: This essay is indebted to many conversations with Veronica Fitzpatrick.