Beautiful people, where are you
By Sally Rooney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 p. $ 28
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The return of Irish prodigy novelist Sally Rooney has been touted by both her editors and the transatlantic press as a literary “event”, for better or for worse. With his successful debut, âConversations With Friends,â and both the acclaimed book and television adaptation of âNormal People,â Rooney has become the commercially anointed voice of millennial unrest. In language that is both accessible and clear, she tells the romantic aspirations of a generation adrift in a world – literally – on fire. His latest, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” doesn’t venture much further from the Dublin apartments, dinner tables and email inboxes of his previous work. For every splashing profile of the 30-year-old writer before publication, there is an equally sharp criticism of his serious mediocrity or the whiteness of his imagination.
In trying to focus on the new novel, it seemed essential, albeit difficult, to exclude the endless noise surrounding Rooney and his success. Fortunately, the writing lives up to the promise of its predecessors and even exceeds the hype. Rooney has written an extraordinarily lucid, beautiful, and nuanced work on coming of age in what is indeed a broken world. Without directly addressing the pandemic, the book powerfully reflects a moment defined by existential interiority and uncertainty. By making a novelist struggling with an overnight celebrity one of her central characters, she has put her own angst on the page.
The novel opens with a writer named Alice waiting for her Tinder date at a small town bar. She moved to the Irish countryside following psychological depression and now lives in a large house by the sea, alone and withdrawn despite the obligations of her professional success – literary festivals and internet fame. She waits at the bar FÃ©lix, a local with a troubled past who scans shipping boxes in a delivery warehouse for a living and does not read books. Along with the relationship they forge is the story of Eileen and Simon – Alice’s best friends in Dublin – who have struggled for years to define their own entanglement. This is the extent of the plot. It’s Rooney’s language and alertness to mood, setting, and pace that makes these relationships so deeply compelling.
Through his work, Rooney has examined a Western generation born into the relative economic and political privilege of the 1990s, now facing a collapsing order and deep inequalities. For those who thought their education would provide protections and pathways for settlement, there is emotional drift and a lack of connection. Rooney is a self-proclaimed Marxist, but her novels are not polemics against capitalism. His politics are more subtly infused with his constant interest in the power dynamics between men and women, between friends and lovers, between the rich and the working class.
On the surface, âBeautiful Worldâ is indeed a low-stakes angst for some thirty years – and that is perhaps exactly why Rooney has his share of detractors. “Normcore”, “basic” and “millennial” seem to be recurring accusations. Unlike a literary moment defined by new under-represented voices and thrilling political novels filled with cultural calculations, Rooney’s characters are rather ordinary. And yet, it is one of the most assertive, poetic, and beautifully calibrated books I have read in years. The âtechnologyâ of his novel – a term Rooney used to describe his craft – is precisely tested to meet the way language works today.
In long emails interspersed between the central narrative, Eileen and Alice ruminate on everything from climate change to white privilege, from the history of writing to their ambivalence towards motherhood. The way Rooney views these conversations demonstrates his understanding of the way so many of us think and speak now, in scattered thoughts, oscillating between registers of global catastrophe and personal shortcomings, gossip and political outrage. .
With these open exchanges, Rooney gives history its roots in political and cultural time. International disasters collide with Tinder messages on bright screens. Eileen and Alice never reach conclusive positions, but their heartfelt correspondence demonstrates how the afterlife kicks in even when one retreats to a private refuge. Despite all the criticism of millennial egocentricity or social media narcissism, one of the most touching aspects of the generation Rooney writes for and about is a certain seriousness and social conscience that the current political order seems incapable of addressing. ‘to exploit.
One of the most welcome features of “Beautiful World, Where You Are” is how Rooney helped put literary fiction at the center of popular culture. Novelists rarely fulfill the roles that showrunners, actors, and influencers have now taken on in mainstream culture. It is a book designed to be widely read and discussed. Even though another series is filmed about his work – and this too, I imagine – Rooney’s commitment to the beauty of the novel seems old-fashioned and heartfelt in the best way.