Finding Meaning in Dire Times: Sally Rooney’s “Beautiful World, Where Are You”

October 7, 2021   •   By Esmé Hogeveen

Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney

WAITING TO GET my hands on an advance copy of Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, felt akin to anticipating a midnight drop of the latest Harry Potter book. In fact, the demographic obsessed with Rooney’s insistently plain writing style and early-20s romantic plots may have significant overlap with the millennial generation raised on the Potter series. Both sets of books center the challenges of youth and feature protagonists grappling with depression, family trauma, and the sliding boundaries of friendship, attraction, and love. The same sets of concerns appear, of course, in most coming-of-age stories. What feels unique about the widespread anticipation of Beautiful World is that, as with the Potter craze, Rooney’s fans and detractors know they are participating in a global literary event.


The pressure on Rooney must be great. Her debut, Conversations with Friends (2017), received accolades from Zadie Smith and Sarah Jessica Parker, and its glowing cover appeared on numerous Instagram posts citing the novel’s binge-worthiness. Rooney’s follow-up, Normal People (2018), was even more successful: it won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Award and was named Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. Where Conversations with Friends presented a clear-eyed, first-person account of youthful aspirations, infidelity, and multilayered friendship, Normal People had more of a straightforward marriage plot, tracking the two protagonists’ fraught bond via alternating third-person reflections. Last year, Rooney’s star ascended even higher with the success of the television adaptation of Normal People. Rooney, who has writing credits on six episodes and received an Emmy nomination, became a household name far beyond her native Ireland.


Though Rooney’s admirers far outnumber her critics, a lot is riding on the reception of Beautiful World. In an April 2020 interview with The Guardian, she admitted: “[L]ike anyone, I always want the next thing I do to be the best thing I’ve ever done.” Unlike just anyone, however, Rooney had a global following by her mid-20s and is now a poster girl for the so-called genre of “millennial fiction.” As literary critic Becca Rothfeld posited in her recent essay “Sanctimony Literature,” Rooney’s work looms large in debates about overly moralizing 21st-century fiction. Alongside heaping praise for her dexterity at presenting emotional nuance and young leftist perspectives, Rooney has also been critiqued for the flatness of her descriptions and for “telling” rather than “showing” detail. The immense popularity of Rooney’s first novels and the Normal People miniseries almost guarantees Beautiful World’s commercial success, yet her newest book projects anxiety about its own literary purpose. Meta considerations about the stakes of writing, once again, about middle-class relationships are built directly into the plot of Beautiful World. The question “Can something popular also be great?” has dogged the reception of Rooney’s work thus far, and one gets the sense that she anticipates the publicity machine and critical apparatus waiting to gnaw into her literary equivalent of the ever-challenging third album.


The cover summary suggests that Beautiful World is about four equally weighted protagonists. In actuality, the narrative mainly oscillates between the perspectives of two close female friends in their late 20s: Eileen, an underpaid editor working at a small but prestigious Dublin literary journal, and Alice, a novelist renting a “chaotically huge” rectory in West Ireland after suffering a breakdown. The supporting male characters are Simon, a devout Catholic repeatedly described as “beautiful,” who nurses a long-held affection for Eileen, and Felix, who works at an Amazon-type warehouse and meets Alice on a dating app. Though we glean insights into Simon’s and Felix’s circumstances, their portraits lack the rich textures of the women’s. Evoking the charged intimacy between Frances and Bobbi in Conversations with Friends and Marianne and Connell in Normal People, Eileen and Alice’s dynamic makes Beautiful World another two-hander at heart.


As in Rooney’s earlier works, Beautiful World revolves in part around the life and mind of a writer. Unlike her portraits of poet Bobbi and novelist Connell, Alice and Eileen read as proxies for the author’s competing impulses. Though the plots and styles of Alice’s books are only vaguely alluded to, her arc bears an unmistakable resemblance to Rooney’s. Early on we learn that Eileen and Alice met at Trinity College Dublin — Rooney’s alma mater — and that “when they were twenty-four, Alice signed an American book deal for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” “A lot of press attention surrounded the publication,” Rooney writes, “mostly positive at first, and then some negative pieces reacting to the fawning positivity of the initial coverage.” Assuming that Alice’s and Rooney’s experiences align completely would amount to the kind of biographical critique Alice frequently rails against, yet it’s hard not to query the parallels.


Unlike Rooney, Alice doesn’t respond directly to the press so much as engage with her inner critic. The novel’s focus mostly shifts between Eileen and Alice, with an occasional dip into Felix’s perspective (of the foursome, Simon’s point of view is the least explored). Chapters about the women’s lives are broken up by transcripts of emails they send to one another. Their lengthy correspondence includes quotidian updates and travel plans as well as thoughts on family, breakups, sex, crushes, employment, art-making, and political and ecological disaster. A recurrent topic is the futility of art in the 21st century. “I have a new theory. Would you like to hear it?” Eileen asks Alice, continuing: “My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence.” The friends also speculate about the Late Bronze Age collapse and “the idea that writing systems could be ‘lost.’” Frequently concerned about the limits of liberal politics and their relative privilege, the characters mine historical vignettes to better interpret contemporary life.


If the women’s emails are a forum for philosophical inquiry and personal vulnerability, then the urgency of Alice’s self-questioning seems proportionate to her success. “What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway?” she asks Eileen. It’s unclear whether the question is rhetorical. Though Alice appears relatively secure, at times even bemused, when Felix and other new acquaintances interrogate her celebrity, fame also unnerves her. Of witnessing herself in the media, Alice writes,


I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything. And yet when other people read about her, they believe that she is me. Confronting this fact makes me feel I am already dead.


Alice’s moments of self-loathing are, if not counterbalanced, at least comingled with incredulity, bravado, and humility regarding her success. “Every day I wonder why my life has turned out this way,” she says via email before semi-excitedly announcing a press junket to Rome.


As a contemporary take on the tradition of women’s epistolary writing, the novel’s recourse to emails seems a promising framework for Rooney’s much-touted character studies. But, while many aspects of Eileen and Alice’s missives are compelling, the digital conceit doesn’t quite land. Given the friends’ intense closeness, it seems unbelievable — a little too quaint or narratively convenient — that they should communicate almost exclusively via electronic letters. Their messages are usually five or six pages long, but Alice composes Beautiful World’s shortest email while being driven to a post-event dinner with Felix: “Alice opened her email app and wrote a new message to Eileen: If I ever suggest I’m going to bring a total stranger to Rome again please feel free to tell me it’s a terrible idea.” Perhaps using phone-based email apps instead of text messaging is more common in Ireland than in North America. Still, Rooney’s insistence on the characters’ pseudoformal correspondence reads as inauthentic. It seems unlikely, in our era of instant messaging and inescapable social media, that Eileen and Alice would rarely, if ever, text, video chat, or speak via phone. In light of the praise Rooney has received for portraying internet-mediated voices, specifically Frances’s Twitter-ish deadpan in Conversations with Friends, the staid email framework of Beautiful World is disappointing.


Though one appreciates Rooney’s efforts to stray from a successful recipe, Beautiful World’s pacing also lags. It’s still a page-turner, but unlike Rooney’s earlier books, the simple sentences and hyperdirect exposition don’t always work toward a narrative payoff. While the youthful romances of Conversations with Friends and Normal People set the stage for misunderstandings, heartbreak, and other dramas, the relative pragmatism of Beautiful World’s characters’ concerns leads to less suspenseful storytelling. At times, reading the novel felt akin to watching reality television. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, having the characters move in their emotionally controlled zones, with their different personalities and ambitions butting up against one another in relatively predictable ways, makes the absence of Rooney’s earlier immediacy more apparent. Further distance is added by a quasi-omniscient narrator who occasionally appears and jerks the reader away from close proximity to a character’s point of view. For instance, here is a passage describing a literary event:


Alice answered questions about feminism, sexuality, the work of James Joyce, the role of the Catholic Church in Irish cultural life. Did Felix find her answers interesting, or was he bored? Was he thinking about her, or about something else, someone else? And onstage, speaking about her books, was Alice thinking about him? Did he exist for her in that moment, and if so, in what way?


In the second and third lines, we interpret Felix as the narrator’s focus or proxy, so the pivot to speculation about Alice’s perspective is jolting. As with the email interludes, the occasional interjection of such a removed narrator contributes a needlessly heavy hand to the proceedings.


Stories about women in their late 20s have become increasingly popular in the last decade, especially in the mass media. Films like Frances Ha (2012) and TV shows like Girls (2012–’17) come to mind, along with many others that disproportionately focus on white protagonists. In the literary world, Sheila Heti’s novel-cum-memoir How Should a Person Be? (2010), which wrestles with questions of how to live, relate, and make art in one’s 20s, is often cited in pieces about Rooney. In August, Alexandra Schwartz published an essay in The New Yorker titled “In Coming-Of-Middle-Age Stories, Adults Grow Up, Too,” which considers the work of Deborah Levy and Dana Spiotta. Novels by these writers, as well as by Rachel Cusk, Anna Burns, Naoise Dolan, and others considered to be Rooney’s contemporaries, query how to live as an adult woman, rather than as a teenager or college student.


Central to the questions posed by this genre of writing is how to live contentedly, ethically, and with self-awareness and conviction. Rooney’s characters are not interested in the Instagram maxim “Living my best life!” Rather, they are driven by an urge to mitigate existential dread and anxiety. None of the characters in Beautiful World seeks happiness per se, though they all strive to thoughtfully engage with the world. The various subplots — Eileen and Simon’s light dominance play and uncertain romantic future, Alice and Felix’s struggles to trust and communicate, even Alice’s efforts to write another great book — all raise questions of self-knowledge and self-reliance. A fear of not knowing themselves or the world well enough to adeptly care for one another plagues the characters. Yet as the full title of Beautiful World, Where Are You, a line borrowed from Enlightenment poet Friedrich Schiller, portends, Rooney and her cast retain a hope that meaning may still be found in these dire times.


On numerous occasions, Rooney has expressed ambivalence about the value of writing fiction amid global crises. In this sense, Beautiful World picks up where Conversations with Friends and Normal People left off. If the earlier books were about the dissonant leap between the teenage years and young adulthood, Beautiful World is about adults losing faith in reformation or catharsis. Instead, Eileen, Alice, Simon, and Felix reflect, ruefully but pragmatically, on the cards they’ve been dealt and the gambles they’ve made or will make. The questions asked in Beautiful World are more exigent and potentially universal than those posed in Rooney’s earlier books; however, the framework feels clumsier. In trying to craft something more profound, Rooney has lost a bit of the nuance and the keen observations she’s known for. Eileen writes in an email,


Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse. But at the same time, that is what I do every day.


Though Rooney occasionally seems paralyzed by her own anxieties, her new book breathes best when she attends to the details.


¤


Esmé Hogeveen is a writer and editor based in Toronto. She is a staff writer at Another Gaze and a Film and ArtSeen contributor at The Brooklyn Rail. Her writing on art, film, culture, and aesthetics has appeared in Artforum, Bookforum, The Baffler, BOMB, Frieze, Hazlitt, Hyperallergic, GARAGE, Canadian Art, CMagazine, Texte zur Kunst, and cléo filmjournal, among other venues.