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Sally Rooney’s newest book asks whether novels of love and friendship are still worth reading

Join Society

Sally Rooney, 2017

When the title for Sally Rooney’s newest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was first announced, it was pretty roundly mocked by the kinds of people who care about these kinds of things on Twitter. Though the title was taken from a Friedrich Schiller poem, and was the namesake of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial, it does nevertheless sound a bit like a children’s book crossed with a Mariah Carey album. But the idea of utopia is not inherently unserious. It is earnestly debated by serious people on the left, and despite the Goodnight, Moon-esque cadence, one cannot judge a book by its title.

Besides — I am going to commit a cardinal sin of book reviewing here, and talk about myself — I like Sally Rooney. This feels important to note only because Rooney discourse is such a garbled behemoth of bad takes. It is sometimes useful, in these situations, to stake out where you stand. Part of this affection is demographic: I am a twenty-three-year-old woman who likes novels. I am, one might say, the target audience. Part of it, though, is that her first two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, are minutely observed, emotionally honest, and relentlessly propulsive. They are impressive character studies that have something to say about how people relate to each other, or at least how overeducated college students miscommunicate about their love lives. Both — the superior Conversations with Friends more so than the comparatively straightforward Normal People — resist the mind-numbing and libido-killing Hollywood treatment of romance as a neutered, predictable side plot. They are novels of desire and of pleasure, and they take that vocation seriously.

Beautiful World, Where Are You focuses on a similar set of characters as the last two books, aged up. Alice and Eileen, 29ish, best friends from university, are the main duo. Alice is a rich and famous novelist with a similar career path to Rooney herself, newly holed up in a rambling house in a small town on the Atlantic coast of Ireland after suffering a psychotic breakdown. Eileen is an underpaid editorial assistant at a Dublin literary magazine, lonely, broke, and idly cyberstalking a recent ex. The main dramatic thrust, as always, is romantic. Alice meets Felix, a warehouse worker, on Tinder; Eileen reconnects with Simon, a family friend she slept with years ago and has loved since childhood. The characters circle each other and flirt with falling in love. A lot of talking, fucking, and emailing ensues.

One of the consistent themes across Rooney’s work is that the characters, for all their veneer of detachment, are earnestly looking for the “right” way to live their lives. They also tend to find themselves politically and personally stuck. Brandon Taylor has written that the Millennial novel is a fundamentally Naturalist project, taking “as its central conceit that a person’s life is bounded and organized by some superseding force or forces,” usually class and gender in Rooney’s case. Conversations with Friends and Normal People also pay serious attention to the determinative forces exerted by the power dynamics of social groups, whether in regards to age (the former) or good old fashioned teenage popularity (the latter). In Beautiful World, Where Are You, these are mostly replaced by anxieties about one’s position in global capitalism. The characters are aware, and they feel bad about it, and they also feel incapable of advancing any change.

I have never been particularly bothered by the moral insipidness of Rooney’s subjects. It is the same limp politics embodied by much of the real-life milieu she writes about, and by that metric it succeeds as fiction, which often need only be honest to be interesting. But the effect of this empty self-consciousness can sometimes be a bit — I use this word carefully — hysterical. Early on in Beautiful World, Where Are You, Alice writes to Eileen about her experience walking into a convenience store and being struck that pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped abundance is the anticlimactic culmination of an exploitative global supply chain: “I felt dizzy thinking about it. I mean I really felt ill… That was what they died for — that was the great experiment. I thought I would throw up.” There’s something a bit Victorian about this show of physical delicacy in the face of someone else’s suffering. But at least, as Alice notes, she manages to pull herself together and buy lunch anyway.

Rooney’s project, here as in the earlier novels, is about articulating how one might live (happily, if at all possible) with the sociopolitical hand one has been dealt. The stakes in Beautiful World are higher than before, if only because the characters are older: questions of love, ambition, faith, and potential motherhood are more urgent for Alice and Eileen as they approach thirty than they were for Frances or Marianne as college students. These characters are skeptical of institutions, but not as skeptical as you imagine they might once have been: “I offer no defense of coercive heterosexual monogamy, except that it was at least a way of doing things,” Alice writes. Rooney has been compared to everyone from Jane Austen to Ben Lerner — and in this book attempts to channel Dubliners-era James Joyce, most notably in a scene where Felix sings “The Lass of Aughrim” — but in searching for a literary antecedent to Beautiful World, Where Are You, I kept landing on the rather unfashionable answer of W. Somerset Maugham. Much like Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Beautiful World is a sweeping novel about devoted interpersonal attachment and the contours of a good life, and, without giving away too much, the philosophical conclusions it comes to are not dissimilar.

Beautiful World is meant to act as a defense of the novel of “sex and friendship,” as one email from Eileen to Alice puts it. It posits that, even in a world of staggering inequality and structural violence, a world that both characters seem to agree might be on the verge of collapse, personal relationships are the only real building blocks of a politics of care. Art that acknowledges this is worth making, just as a life focused on friends and family is worth living. “After all,” Eileen writes, “when people are lying on their deathbeds, don’t they always start talking about their spouses and children? And isn’t death just the apocalypse in the first person?” This is a well-trod but welcome argument, made abstractly in Rooney’s first two novels and more explicitly here; I have no complaints with the basic ideology.

There are good lines and good sex scenes, good jokes, good observations. The problem with the book isn’t the emphasis on the erotic or the familiarity of the subject matter. It isn’t the cheesy title or the superficial leftist politics of the characters. It certainly isn’t the focus on romantic love and friendship as worthy of literary attention. The problem is that, in a novel that purportedly makes the case for serious, engaged writing about compelling characters in believably messy relationships, Rooney has failed to give us any.

Alice and Felix and Eileen and Simon: who are these people? What pulls them together, or keeps them apart? Alice is a novelist to whom nobody at publishing parties ever offers cocaine. She is meant to be a cutting, difficult character, but only seems to say harsh things in response to greater cruelty — as when Felix tells her that while many people may want things from her, “None of them actually care about you one bit. I don’t know if anyone does.” (She is also meant to be intelligent and well-read but writes things like “I wish there were a good theory of sexuality out there for me to read.”) Her love for Felix, who is mostly callous to her, is legible only with a few giant leaps of interpretive faith. A dysfunctional family life is loosely sketched in but largely unexamined, as is her time in a Dublin psychiatric hospital.

Felix is if anything more nonsensical. He is a collection of tics, some that read like a stereotype of working-class masculinity and some that are meant to complicate that stereotype — but only serve to clutter it. In one moment he’s brutish, with a taste for violent pornography, a history of behaving badly towards women, and an utter lack of interest in the written word, and in another he’s tender and nonthreatening, showing Alice cute raccoon videos and asking whether it’s okay for him to use the word “fuck” while they have sex. (On a similarly redemptive and even more cliché note, he’s a loving dog owner.) His interests — getting drunk, watching sports — are generic. He is bisexual, which feels like a random underexplored side plot (as is often the case when Rooney writes queerness) meant to make him more palatable despite his moments of chauvinism. Fundamentally, Rooney seems incapable of rendering the inner life of someone who does not like to read. This is a shame. Felix is the only major working-class character in Rooney’s fiction who is not upwardly mobile or academically brilliant. He could function as a rebuke to the credentialist meritocracy that Rooney and her characters have claimed to despise; instead, his construction is sloppy at best and condescending at worst.

All of this means the pairing never quite comes alive. It’s hard to decipher what Alice sees in Felix beyond the fact that he’s unimpressed by her and has a really big dick; Felix never seems to like Alice much at all. Eileen and Simon, on the other hand, seem made for each other, and the forces keeping them apart cannot help but read as contrived. The “made for” aspect is also troublesome: no universe seems possible in which they do not end up together. You can practically see the plot threads stringing them along every time they fuck.

Simon — beautiful, Messianic, six-foot-three Simon — is a Catholic Adonis who is singularly committed to Eileen, dating a string of hot twenty-three-year-olds only so long as she refuses to date him. He works as a parliamentary assistant for a small leftist party after deciding as a teenager that he was too horny to become a priest (how does anyone ever forget that these novels are Irish?), but all of his actions — up to and including wanting Eileen to call him Daddy in bed — seem tinged with piety. In one flashback we see him pray to God, as a 20-year-old, for the only thing he has ever wanted: “Dear God, let [Eileen] live a happy life. I’ll do anything, anything, please, please.”

Their main conflict is Eileen’s fear of a relationship going badly and ending their friendship. This might be enough to sustain a two-episode arc on a CW teen drama, but as one of the central tensions in a 350-page novel it falls flat. To make this work, Eileen must continuously make decisions that verge on nonsensical. Time and again, Simon offers her everything she wants; time and again she says no and then goes to cry in her bedroom. She is, at least, the only character to receive a fully comprehensive backstory (doled out in one continuous, masterful take in the second chapter): her low self-esteem is tied to a friendless adolescence, narcissistic mother, and heinous bitch of a sister. Still, Rooney’s overt machinations to drag the resolution out come at the expense of Eileen’s apparent competence.

Courtesy of FSG

Beautiful World, Where Are You is more stylistically playful than its predecessors, less so on the line level than in its approach to narration. For the most part these experiments are welcome. Some chapters borrow from the conventions of dramatic writing; others draw from early 20th-century modernist writers, Joyce and Virginia Woolf among them. And there is plenty of beauty to be found in Rooney’s turn towards description, particularly in evoking the west coast of Ireland: “The dunes massed and quiet, dune grass smoothed by the cool wind.” (Some descriptive tendencies are more irritating. Take a shot every time an aspect of Eileen or Alice’s anatomy is described as “small,” “thin,” or “white” and experience the curious sensation of your liver trying to hide behind your pancreas.)

In spurts throughout the novel, most notably in the first few chapters, Rooney deploys a limited third person narrator with no psychological insight. We don’t learn characters’ names until they or another character say them. No one feels or thinks anything, they only “seem” and “appear” to do so. Facial expressions and even everyday objects are described as if the narrator has never seen such a thing before. A condom is a “square of tinfoil”; the effect of a meaningful conversation is “impossible to decipher.” This restrained style borrows from a bluntly realist literary trend set forth by Tao Lin and the rest of the alt-lit scene, and the effect is appealingly laconic. (Only occasionally does the dryness verge on the idiotic. “From behind he looked tall.” What? Eileen’s hair “looked clean and slightly dry.” Who cares?) As a result, much of the interiority — one of Rooney’s greatest strengths as a writer — falls to the emails Eileen and Alice send each other. This brings us to perhaps the most significant formal decision Rooney makes: Beautiful World, more than either of its predecessors, is an epistolary novel. Emails make up approximately half the chapters, alternating with third-person narration.

Unfortunately, the emails can be insufferable.

“I believe studies show that in the last couple of years, people have been spending a lot more time reading the news and learning about current affairs.”

“Not that I’m comparing my dissatisfaction to the misery of actual oppressed peoples, I just mean that the lifestyle they sustain for us is not even satisfying, in my opinion.”

“I offer one alternative hypothesis: the instinct for beauty lives on, at least in Rome.”

“I wonder if you think I sound crazy, because maybe you don’t feel sexual desire anywhere near as strongly as I do — maybe no one does, I don’t know.”

“I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilization is facing collapse.”

“If novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels — and quite rightly!”

While a few of the most irritating lines are ironized and ultimately disputed, the tone of these emails veers overwhelmingly toward the solipsistic, didactic, and pompous. They also have the unfortunate tendency of making these intelligent characters sound stupid. The end of history came with the fall of the Soviet Union? The human capacity for beauty ended in 1976? Nobody has ever theorized sex before? (At least Eileen gently corrects Alice on this last point by sending her an Audre Lorde essay.) Much of what they talk about has the unfortunate effect of evoking warmed-over Twitter discourse. Cancel culture, the conflation of victimhood with morality, weird parasocial projections onto public figures: these are worthy subjects that have been litigated and re-litigated to the point that their resurrection in this novel reads as wildly out of date as Eileen’s ex-boyfriend’s “local sad boy. normal brain haver” Instagram bio.

The shift between styles can come at the cost of the novel’s momentum. Say what you will about Rooney’s first two books, they were at least page-turners. In Beautiful World, you might race through a tender love scene or an exquisite portrait of a wedding told through five characters’ overlapping memories, only to turn the page and find yourself reading a summary of a 2017 London Review of Books article about the Late Bronze Age. With all due respect to the LRB, this rather kills the mood.

But the largest problem is that these email chapters, on the whole, fail as character work. Try and guess which lines quoted above are written by either character — there is almost no tonal or stylistic variance between Eileen’s writing and Alice’s.* While Rooney has an ear for dramatic, realistic dialogue, she’s never been all that great at giving her characters different voices. They all talk like sensitive millennials with the same cadence and the same sense of humor, and the effect is amplified in the longer form of these email exchanges. Failures of character and of style can’t be easily separated from each other.

Where does all this leave us? While Conversations with Friends ends with an unanswered command — “Come and get me” — that gestures towards a happy stasis outside of traditional monogamy, and Normal People ends with true love interrupted by the imminent separation of an overseas MFA program, Beautiful World, Where Are You ends with even less ambiguity. Without resorting to specific spoilers, the lingering mood is ultimately pretty conservative. Couple up, move in together, bake some sourdough, have a baby. Why not? It might not be much, but it is at least a way of doing things.

*The answers, for those playing along at home: Eileen, Eileen, Alice, Alice, Eileen, Alice.

Mariah Kreutter

is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vulture, Popula, and the Los Angeles Times.

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