Sally Rooney Gets Outside of People’s Heads
In her third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” the Irish author observes her unhappy young protagonists from a notable distance.
By Lauren Michele Jackson September 10, 2021
Yes, there is a novelist. Her name contains five letters and two syllables: Alice. She is one of four main characters in “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” the third novel by the Irish author Sally Rooney. She—Alice, that is—writes books about, “oh, I don’t know. . . . People,” as she says near the close of a stilted first date with Felix, a warehouse worker. A market exists for these books, a lot of people consider them good, and so Alice the novelist is successful. She is reticent and proud of this fact, and a measure of each colors her begrudging participation in the requisite publicness that characterizes the contemporary version of her profession. Alice is that kind of author: the “Yesterday afternoon I gave three interviews and did an hour-long photo shoot” kind, the adored so much it must be too much (and suspect)—the kind of author with a Wikipedia page, movie rights worth selling off, and, oh, yes, lots of money, enough to pay off her estranged mother’s mortgage and to entertain the notion of buying a “chaotically huge” four-bedroom seaside rectory, three hours from Dublin, where she’s residing in a hiatus of sorts after a breakdown sent her to a psychiatric hospital.
For a certain kind of reader, Alice is a siren: no other protagonist in Rooney’s previous novels—“Conversations with Friends” (2017) and “Normal People” (2018), the latter the basis for a Hulu and BBC limited series that Rooney co-wrote—beckons so seductively to be interpreted as a stand-in for Rooney herself. Because Rooney writes fictional characters who, like her, are young, Irish, and globalized—or, better put, very contemporary and also very online—and because she has garnered an extraordinary level of prominence in the few short years since her début, she has become oddly implicated in critical judgments of her fictional characters. Why does Rooney, a Marxist, write about people who seem to wear their politics idly, in conversation and seemingly nowhere else? Why do her professed radicals reserve their passions for romantic coupling? Isn’t it ironic that a book by an author who’s expressed discomfort with her celebrity is being promoted with boxes of “exclusive merch” and a truck, emblazoned with the novel’s cover art, that will serve coffee around New York City? “However funny, cerebral or Marxist Rooney may be in person,” Becca Rothfeld wrote for the Point, last year, her novels are hardly radical; it may be only unintentionally that “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People” successfully capture “the impotence and hypocrisy that abound in the fashionably leftist communities” which make up Rooney’s fictional milieux. Contrary to insights of early-twentieth-century literary theory, biographical criticism remains very much in vogue. But little of it seems to be making us smarter about the novels in question.
Rooney is a fleet, attuned writer—“Beautiful World, Where Are You” is her third novel in only four years—so perhaps it was inevitable that she would integrate some of this overwrought discourse into her new book. This happens in the form of chapter-length e-mails exchanged between Alice and her best friend from college, Eileen. Not unlike the lectures within J. M. Coetzee’s “Elizabeth Costello,” this correspondence permits excursus on modern life and its plagues, including the relative utility (or futility) of novel writing. Alice has doubts that what she does counts as work in any meaningful sense. Fame makes her miserable; she can’t understand what she, the person, should have to do with her books. She sneers at all the contemporary authors whose “sensitive little novels about ‘real life’ ” suppress the suffering and catastrophe that characterize real life for much of the globe—though she admits that she is “the worst culprit in this regard.” While resolved not to feel good about what she does, she’s less sure about how not to feel existentially bad about it, or how to at least feel bad in a way that does something. “I’m not a painter or a musician, for good reason, but I am a novelist, and I do try to take the novel seriously—partly because I’m conscious of the extraordinary privilege of being allowed to make a living from something as definitionally useless as art,” Alice writes.
If such commentary sounds a bit dutiful, or defensive, it is only a fraction of the museful talk that fills Alice and Eileen’s exchanges, which also include fluent contemplations of fertility, civilizational decline, supply chains, Jesus, and visual art. In that sense, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” could be called Rooney’s version of a novel of ideas, and I confess that my tolerance for the characters’ roving disquisitions turned out to be pretty high. I found myself nodding sagely as the women riffed about, say, identity politics: “Everyone is at once hysterically attached to particular identity categories and completely unwilling to articulate what these categories consist of, how they came about, and what purposes they serve.” (This was in a message from Eileen, not that who’s who matters much in the course of these exchanges; the two women seem effectively to share the same brain.) In their e-mails, Alice and Eileen complain past each other, each failing to convince the other that her unhappiness is wholly justified. But the novel’s most interesting turns take place outside of the characters’ in-boxes. Rooney has been recognized for renewing the nineteenth-century marriage plot while shirking the bourgeois demands of contracted coupling (if not of coupling itself). Her previous books are activated by swift attachments. “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” by contrast, charts a time of protracted cleaving.
Whereas Frances and Bobbi, the witty and wanting Trinity College students of Rooney’s début, bounced together from outing to outing, Alice and Eileen have completed their thick-as-thieves period as early twentysomethings. They are late twentysomethings now—twenty-nine, to be exact—a phase that they are experiencing as a kind of comedown. In Dublin, Eileen is working at a literary magazine, where she occasionally links up with Simon, a friend since childhood who is five years older and who advises for a small left-wing parliamentary group. Alice is starting something with Felix, the warehouse worker local to her new haunt, between the sorts of professional engagements from which she should be taking a break, at least according to Eileen, who wonders why her friend has time to visit Rome but not Dublin. All of the characters suffer from feeling ineffectual where they are, and the reader wonders whether this problem constitutes a specific identity, a set of circumstances, or a fixed condition of being.
As in Rooney’s previous novels, there are parties and gatherings where participants seem afraid to admit that they want to be part of something; bantering dialogue, the lines of which fit together like the pieces of a carefully made puzzle; debates about the best articulation of class struggle; mentions of writers such as Baldwin and Keats; characters who pair off in a heterosexual fashion but profess a casual queerness. (“I know I am bisexual, but I don’t feel attached to it as an identity,” Alice tells Eileen, in an e-mail.) The characters’ backstories, related in an early chapter, read like a would-be earlier Rooney novel in miniature: the coming together of a social life, the accumulation of cultural (and actual) capital, cohabitation, familial feuds, sex and dating before graduation. But, whereas “Normal People” stuck close to its protagonists, alternating between Marianne’s and Connell’s perspectives, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” observes its characters from a modest but notable distance. The narrator often speculates about the goings on described, and at times seems no more informed than the reader: “Was he thinking about her, or about something else, someone else? And onstage, speaking about her books, was Alice thinking about him?” Descriptions of settings—Eileen’s and Simon’s apartments, the streets after dark—extend both before and after characters’ appearances there, as though the narrator has staked out the premises to provide an impartial gloss on events as they unfold. “At twenty past twelve on a Wednesday afternoon, a woman sat behind a desk in a shared office in Dublin city centre, scrolling through a text document,” we are told, in our first encounter with Eileen. Next comes a detailed picture of her editorial work:
Using the soft greasy roller on her computer mouse she skimmed over the document, eyes flicking back and forth across narrow columns of text, and occasionally she stopped, clicked, and inserted or deleted characters. Most frequently she was inserting two full stops into the name ‘WH Auden’, in order to standardise its appearance as ‘W.H. Auden’. When she reached the end of the document, she opened a search command, selected the Match Case option and searched: ‘WH’. No matches appeared. She scrolled back up to the top of the document, words and paragraphs flying past so quickly as to seem almost certainly illegible, and then, apparently satisfied, saved her work and closed the file.
The other characters’ lives are shown in similar fashion, with the boilerplate simplicity of a day job or a bus ride broken into a series of discrete, empirical acts. Such descriptions are not necessarily revelations on the level of prose. Occasional phrases in the novel, such as the “practised ease” with which fingers navigate a touch screen, venture toward triteness. Yet the accretion of little gestures—hands thrust in and out of pockets, gazes redirected—is one of Rooney’s sharpest distinctions as a stylist. It’s often pointed out that her novels are slight, that they can be read in a sitting or two. (“Beautiful World, Where Are You” is her longest yet, just over three hundred and fifty pages.) But I find that her precise, spare style can also have the effect of dilating scenes, making the reader pay close attention to every word. The sex in Rooney novels is hot because it is written in a syntax of pronouns, verbs, and body parts which won’t be distracted by adverbial overthinking. However much self-awareness she writes into her characters, Rooney also shows us that there is plenty to glean about how people get on with one another without taking up residence inside their heads.
In the best moments of “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” Rooney does what I think of as “meanwhiling,” letting the routine of one character sidle up next to that of another, placing simultaneous, disparate doings in a kind of ambivalent solidarity: “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.” One preoccupation that Alice and Eileen share is the notion of the “ordinary,” a concept that each addresses in her respective e-mails. Alice wonders if she would have written the books she did had she been sooner able to recognize her loneliness as “nothing singular”; Eileen writes that a certain life choice appeals to her because it is “simply the most ordinary thing I can imagine doing.” Yet it is in the third-person accounts of the characters’ lives that the ordinary takes shape. If the idea of “normal” disciplines subjects, hemming them in to convention, ordinariness finds and animates them wherever they are. “A world of shared banalities can be a basis of sociality, or an exhausting undertow, or just something to do,” the scholar Kathleen Stewart has written; in “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” they are all of those things together. No longer quite so normal, Rooney reaches for the banal and grasps tiny worlds.