In Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, one of the main characters, Eileen, attends a poetry reading hosted by the literary magazine where she works. The theme for this event is “crisis”. Some poets use the prompt to navel-gaze, reading works about personal upheaval; one “talked for ten minutes about the difficulties of finding a publisher and only had time to read one poem”. Later, Eileen tells her friend Simon that “we had a Trump poem”. The very thought makes him “earnestly wish for the embrace of death”.
Here, Rooney illustrates an unfortunate but glaring truth – the majority of fiction that attempts to speak to the present moment is embarrassing. With its overtly contemporary references, sanctimonious now-more-than-ever tone and art-in-a-time-of-crisis faux-urgency, the political novel can be an excruciating experience.
Fortunately, Rooney has a rare talent for representing even the most cringe-inducing elements of contemporary experience in precise but understated prose. This is particularly striking because her bestselling first two novels, Conversations With Friends and Normal People, written when Rooney was in her early twenties, concerned the earnest romantic, political and moral epiphanies of 21-year-olds – and their depiction of 21st-century millennial life in Ireland included campus politics, the use of social media and instant messaging, and, crucially, plenty of explicit sex scenes.
Their protagonists – intellectually confident but emotionally insecure Trinity students – are never belittled by Rooney, who evokes their complicated relationships with thrilling immediacy. They made her the novelist of the moment: Normal People was adapted into an award-winning TV series; advance copies of her novels fetched hundreds of dollars on Ebay; and in countless articles Rooney was positioned, to her horror, as a voice of her generation. “Your name becomes a kind of floating signifier that people can attach to things that have nothing to do with you,” she recently told the New York Times. “And you’re like, wait, no, I want that back! That’s mine! I have to use that to get an appointment with the doctor and stuff!”
Now, Rooney is 30, and, in Beautiful World, her characters are reaching the end of their twenties, too. Alice and Eileen became best friends at university – Alice was outspoken and eccentric; Eileen was warm and conscientious, winning academic prizes. At 24, Alice secured a $250,000 book deal; now 29, she is a famous writer, having published two extremely popular novels subject to intense critical attention – “mostly positive at first, and then some negative pieces reacting to the fawning positivity of the initial coverage”.
Like Rooney, Alice is deeply suspicious of and disillusioned by her own success. “I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things – having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself,” she writes in an email to Eileen. “I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy.” She has moved to the west coast of Ireland after a breakdown. Beautiful World opens during a clumsy first date with a man she meets there – Felix, who works in a warehouse.
Meanwhile, Eileen earns €20,000 a year as an editor at a literary magazine in Dublin, where she has written a single essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s novels. She has broken up with her boyfriend of three years, and is renegotiating a flirtatious dynamic with her oldest friend, Simon, a policy adviser and practising Catholic whom she has known since she was 15 and he was 20. Beautiful World alternates between chapters chronicling the faltering relationships of Alice and Felix and Eileen and Simon, and emails between Alice and Eileen: meandering dispatches on right-wing politics, their biological clocks, books, religion and, yes, what this time of “crisis” means “for culture and the arts”.
Rooney has cited Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti as favourite writers of hers, and once published an essay on the novels of Rachel Cusk. These authors are often grouped together under the label “autofiction” – arguably the dominant mode in contemporary fiction – which deliberately blurs the line between narrator and author. But despite sharing a certain internet-inflected self-consciousness with writers such as Lerner, Rooney is more usually compared to George Eliot and Jane Austen. And though she has more in common with Alice than any of her other protagonists, in Beautiful World she moves further away from her characters, holding them at an anthropological distance.
Both Alice and Eileen are introduced as simply “a woman”; it takes a few pages for the narrator to begin calling them by their names. The two friends are physically separate from one another for most of the novel, a device that allows for the intimacy of the letters – but even here they keep each other, and the reader, at a remove. They seem emotionally cooler than the characters of her earlier work, and do not radiate off the page with the same intensity. As a result, Beautiful World often lacks the dynamism that defined Rooney’s previous books.
In one email, Eileen explains that she unexpectedly encountered her ex-boyfriend on the street. This kind of event powered the action of Normal People, but is condensed in Beautiful World into the sentence: “I’m probably thinking about all this now because I saw Aidan randomly on the street the other day and immediately had a heart attack and died.” In Conversations With Friends, Frances has an emotional realisation in a church that is narrated over multiple pages. Here, in a letter from Paris, Alice writes that she found an empty church near her hotel: “There I sat for about 20 minutes bathed in the slow serious air of sanctity and cried a few picturesque tears about the nobility of Jesus.” These are funny sentences, but their deflecting irony suggests the characters’ psychodramas are happening somewhere off the page, unseen.
The most vibrant sequences are the sex scenes, which are some of Rooney’s horniest and best. They are also shamelessly heterosexual. Eileen prizes open the sexual dynamic between her and Simon when she narrates to him, over the phone, a fantasy involving “a little wife” who worships him “like a father”. “I’m offending your feminist principles. I’ll stop,” she says. “Please don’t,” he replies. Alice and Felix, too, explain in detail their fantasies about each other before they have sex. “I like to imagine that you really want me,” Alice tells him, “a lot, not just a normal amount.” It is here – in the private experiences that Rooney is so adept at capturing – that the novel is at its most vivid.
Rooney’s first novels have at times been criticised for a perceived hypocrisy in their politics: that the radicalism of her characters is undermined by the more conventional plots they enact. In the White Review, Helen Charman wrote that “Rooney’s characters seem to be pushing against the limits the tropes of the story are imposing upon them”, but are “subsumed and overpowered by the relentless drive of a traditional love story”. In Beautiful World, Rooney embraces these criticisms of her work – though perhaps it is more of a headlock. The novel’s epigraph is from Ginzburg: “I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it.”
Alice suggests that the novel works by “suppressing the truth of the world” – disregarding global human suffering. We care about the love lives of fictional characters, she writes, “if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, ie everything”. She sees her own work as “the worst culprit in this regard”. Eileen responds, “Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life?” It might be insane to focus on “the trivialities of sex and friendship” mid-apocalypse. But, Eileen admits, “that is what I do every day”.
While in her previous novels Rooney’s narration was focalised through her protagonists, in Beautiful World, the emails reflect Alice and Eileen’s moods. When they are lonely or unhappy, they despair that civilisation is in terminal decline: “The air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is full of microplastics, and our food is contaminated by cancerous Teflon chemicals.” But when their relationships are going well, they find beauty in the world. As Eileen writes of a taxi ride through Dublin, lit up at night: “I began to feel it all over again – the nearness, the possibility of beauty, like a light radiating softly from behind the visible world, illuminating everything.” Although Rooney devotes more space than ever to big concepts such as religion, “care ethics” and identity politics, the book’s framework is not radical or even especially political. It is another novel about sex and friendship.
In a story that hinges on relationships, it seems eccentric that the main characters do not meet until more than three-quarters of the way through the novel. When Eileen and Simon eventually visit Alice and Felix, lingering resentments come to the surface, and new dynamics among the foursome begin to emerge. Watching Simon and Eileen navigate the terrain of their relationship in such close quarters, Felix says: “Now we’re having fun.” But we have to wait until page 268 for this kind of fun to begin. When Alice and Eileen finally have the argument that the novel has been building towards, it ends quickly and seems hurriedly patched over. We are only told that they discuss “things that had happened a long time ago”. We are not permitted full access to their private world.
The meeting of the four characters coincides with a shift in perspective, further from the action. It’s as if Rooney were peering down at her characters from above, or stood over a doll’s house, looking through illuminated windows, as Eileen does from her taxi. Alice and Eileen’s meeting at a train station is seen as a “tableau”; they are again nameless, “two women embracing”. At Alice’s house, the narrator zooms in and out on the building: “Inside, four bodies sleeping, waking, sleeping again. On their sides, or lying on their backs, with the quilts kicked down, through dreams they passed in silence. And already now behind the house the sun was rising.”
The final pages of the novel make reference to the coronavirus pandemic – a “time of crisis” if ever there was one. But there is no sense of the global devastation caused by the virus’s outbreak. It is merely set-dressing for the novel’s moving but almost aggressively conventional ending, which is far neater than the ambiguous conclusions to Rooney’s other works. Like a 19th-century novel, it resolves problems material and emotional, and verges on the twee.
After all the hand-wringing about the novel “suppressing the truth of the world”, it feels like an act of defiance. I am a small writer, Rooney protests. Just try to tell me I’m not.
Beautiful World, Where Are You
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire