Rooney, Resigned

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, 2021 [courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

                                              (Might it not be possible to take one’s pleasure in bourgeois [deformed]

                                              culture as a kind of exoticism?) 

                                              – Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes 


                                              What happened to all those radical students …? They established the biographical pattern

                                              so familiar … sow their political and sexual wild oats in youth, before ‘settling down’.  

                                              – Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital 

Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021), is balm for the millennial who seeks refuge from the political in the personal; for the university-educated young adult who knows things are screwed—politically, ecologically, culturally—but really needs to focus on themself right now. It is a novel of resignation, of capitulation: to the charms of irresponsibility, to the lure of an easy conscience in the midst of a world sustained by the exploitation of nature and labor.  

It is also a neat, tightly knit novel, whose overarching formalism belies its familiar subject matter and impoverished prose. There are 30 chapters. The first 24 cycle six times through the same quadripartite structure: a chapter centered on Alice, a young novelist, and her love interest Felix, a warehouse worker; a chapter composed of an email from Alice to her best friend Eileen, an editorial assistant at a literary magazine; a chapter centered on Eileen and her love interest Simon, a left-leaning political consultant whom Eileen knows from childhood; a chapter composed of an email from Eileen to Alice. In chapters 25–28, all four characters are brought together for a climax at Alice’s opulent house in a small town on Ireland’s west coast—this space serving much the same function in Beautiful World as the vacation home in Trieste did in Normal People (2018) or the villa in Étables in Conversations with Friends (2017): a melodramatic stage for Rooney’s young characters to have sex, fight, and make up. The last two chapters are an epilog or refrain: an email from Alice to Eileen; an email from Eileen to Alice.  

Even where it looks like things might get messy, where the characters’ religious, class, and political differences are concerned, a sense of careful balance holds. Devoutly Catholic Simon is a feminist and decidedly not homophobic. Unwoke Felix is working class and bisexual. Anti-capitalist Eileen is attracted to traditional masculinity. Culturally sensitive Alice doesn’t mind that her blue-collar lover is indifferent to literature. The coexistence of such conspicuously heterogenous traits does not lead to productive conflicts or unexpected syntheses. Rather, these potential complications are neatly resolved in a double marriage plot; they are rendered only to be speedily neutralized. Thus we learn, in the email epilog, that Eileen is with child and anticipating a marriage to Simon, and that the less conventional Alice and Felix live in unmarried cohabitation with their dog. And unlike her cinematic analog, Greta Gerwig, who presents the tidy double marriage plot of Little Women (2019) as a concession to a misogynistic publisher, Rooney frames her ending as an unqualified triumph. 

This neatness is possible because Rooney’s book is inhabited not by people but cardboard cutouts glued to popsicle sticks, wieldy in their flatness. We get only a summary sense of why the characters are interested in each other, of why, say, Alice tells Felix she loves him the fourth time they have sex, a moment preceded by conversations of this kind:

              Are you going to write a book while you’re here? 

              I suppose I’ll try. 

              And what are your books about? 

              Oh, I don’t know, she said. People. 

              That’s a bit vague. What kind of people do you write about, people like you? 

Secondary characters—coworkers, distant friends, parents, not to speak of strangers the protagonists might encounter on the street—are even more wispy, meager. 

The texture of this world is as irreal as that of a soundstage. What Nabokov said of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879), a book that Eileen reads throughout Rooney’s novel, applies readily to Beautiful World: there is “just that amount of furniture and other implements needed for the various actors: a round table with the wet, round trace of a glass, a window painted yellow to make it look as if there were sunlight outside.” Rooney hastily erects her backdrops in order to rush onto the dialogue. “The kitchen was a tiled room behind the hallway,” she writes of a house where the protagonists attend a social gathering, “with a ceiling light over the table and a back door leading out onto the garden.”  

Rooney tends to describe contemporary perception in muffled, vague, or canned terms, in the terms of a subjectivity inured to the present. Here is Rooney on Alice and Felix’s experience of a motorway outside of Rome: “trucks overtook each other at alarming speeds with horns blaring.” Alarming speeds. Horns blaring. These are hollow phrases, which convey neither the anxieties of urban transit nor the detached reflections of someone so accustomed to it that its chaos and danger is beyond notice.  

Rooney is interested in exploring the nature of everyday life, but like her contemporaries Tao Lin and Ben Lerner, her prose is burdened by barren accounts of domestic minutiae. Rather than showing us something unexpected about the mundane, she, like others, merely rehearses it. Here is Rooney on an evening routine: “From the fridge the woman removed a bowl covered in clingfilm. She disposed of the clingfilm and put the bowl in the microwave.” Here is Lerner on a morning routine: “I put on the stovetop espresso machine […] When it was ready, I turned on the shower and when the water was hot I stepped into the shower and took my coffee there” (Leaving the Atocha Station, 2011). Here is Lin on an afternoon routine: “He woke around 2:00 p.m. and showered and put on clothes. He walked into the kitchen listening to music from his iPod through earphones. He was alone in the apartment.” (Richard Yates, 2010). Such phrases, rather than serving as the connective tissue of their respective novels, represent their essence. 

The most generous way to approach such spiritless language is to see it as an existential reflection of the lonely, absurd character of some contemporary lives, of life lived largely online, of a globalized economy in which the sources of things—labor, matter—are obscured. Lerner and Lin respond to the existential problems of the 21st century with a disconcerting detachment that has morphed, respectively, into fairly earnest psychologizing and zany explorations of psychedelia. Both of these responses are weirder and more interesting than Rooney’s. 

Rooney namedrops the gnawing doubts of late capitalist life—climatic disaster, immeasurable waste of resources, the first world’s parasitic relationship to the third—only to shove reality into the reductive frame of a TV script. This script is soothing in its simplicity, its conventionality. She borrows the form of scene headings (“On a platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months”). She ventriloquizes the voiceover (“Felix meanwhile was wheeling a tall stillage trolley through the aisles of the warehouse […] Eileen meanwhile was sitting on her bed scrolling on her phone”). And, like a video camera, she stays on the surface of things, coyly aloof from the depths of psychology (“… whether this experience was especially painful for either of them their features did not suggest”). Again, Nabokov’s words on Dostoevsky are cuttingly true of Rooney: 

              Dostoevski’s method of dealing with his characters is that of a playwright. When introducing this or that one, he always

              gives a short description of their appearance, then hardly ever refers to it any more. Thus his dialogues are generally

              free from any intercalations used by other writers—the mention of a gesture, a look, or any detail referring

              to the background. One feels that he does not see his characters physically, that they are merely puppets, remarkable,

              fascinating puppets plunged into the moving stream of the author’s ideas. 

The trouble with Rooney is that she doesn’t have any ideas, unlike Dostoevsky or the other ambitious writers to which she is compared, such as Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. Or, there are ideas in Beautiful World, Where Are You, but these you could get from scrolling through Twitter or spending a few hours on a college campus. Here’s one: identity politics might be a little muddled, a little overboard. In Eileen’s second email to Alice, she writes,  

              Everyone is at once hysterically attached to particular identity categories and completely unwilling to

              articulate what those categories consist of, how they came about, and what purposes they serve. The only

              apparent schema is that for every victim group (people born into poor families, women, people of colour)

              there is an oppressor group (people born into rich families, men, white people). But in this framework, relations

              between victim and oppressor are not historical so much as theological, in that the victims are transcendently

              good and the oppressors are personally evil. 

This is an idea with which one might sympathize, were Rooney after something more substantial than the alleviation of bourgeois-bohemian guilt. For that is the main idea propelling this story forward, the motive force for Alice, Eileen, and perhaps Rooney herself. It is the idea encapsulated in the title Beautiful World, Where Are You. It is a question, a plea, that might be paraphrased as: How do I live a life of middle-class comfort—a life rife with conveniently disposable plastic products, the cultural capital that accompanies writing novels or working at literary magazines, and liberty from physical laborguilt free, without too much fussing over ethics or politics? In other words, Beautiful World wants to resolve the cognitive dissonance that attends an elite humanities education in a Western university, an education that simultaneously awakens one to socioeconomic, racial, and environmental injustice and feeds the desire for prestigious cultural work, for trips to famous European cities, and for one’s life to resemble a YA novel. 

Rooney’s novel tries to fend off such criticisms preemptively. So Eileen writes in an email to Alice, “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. But at the same time, that is what I do every day.” So Alice writes in an email to Eileen: “I find my own work morally and politically worthless, and yet it’s what I do with my life, the only thing I want to do.” For Rooney’s characters, awareness of one’s failures and absolution from them are the same thing. Their “realistic” embrace of their personal desires is really an embrace of defeatism. 

There is nothing trivial about sex, friendship, or the art of the novel. But trivial sex is trivial; and trivial art is trivial; and in an era of serious problems—say, the looming collapse of life on earth—the last thing we need is an affirmation of trivialities by an uninspired book. 

It is this lack of inspiration which at last renders Beautiful World, Where Are You insupportable, which reveals the hype and hymns surrounding Rooney to be misplaced. Rooney’s book achieves as little in the realm of style as it does in the realm of ideas. It will not shake the political, perceptual, or aesthetic assumptions of its target audience but assuage them, for it neither proposes radical notions nor incarnates radical forms: it reifies the lifestyle of compromise that so many 20-somethings lead; it reifies the cute plot conventions of a Hulu drama. It is one thing for a writer to depict sympathetically the inconsistencies and dilemmas of a particular class in a particular generation, another to assent to them. Rooney’s writing does the latter, and in so doing it leaves us more inert and inured than before. 

Noah Rawlings is a writer from North Carolina