This month’s return of Irish wunderkind novelist Sally Rooney has been billed by both her publishers and the transatlantic press as a literary “event,” for better and worse. With her best-selling debut, “Conversations With Friends,” and both the acclaimed book and TV adaptation of “Normal People,” Rooney has become the commercially anointed voice of millennial malaise. In language both accessible and clear, she chronicles the romantic longings of a generation adrift in a world — quite literally — on fire. Her latest, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” does not venture much farther from the Dublin apartments, dinner tables and email inboxes of her previous work. For each splashy profile of the 30-year-old writer that has preceded publication, there is an equally pointed critique of her earnest mediocrity or the whiteness of her imagination.
In trying to focus on the new novel, it has seemed essential, albeit difficult, to shut out the incessant noise surrounding Rooney and her success. Fortunately, the writing more than lives up to the promise of its predecessors and even exceeds the hype. Rooney has written an extraordinarily lucid, gorgeous and nuanced work about 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. In making a novelist struggling with overnight fame one of her central characters, she has placed her own angst on the page.
The novel opens with a writer named Alice waiting for her Tinder date in a small-town bar. She has moved to the Irish countryside following a psychological breakdown and now lives in a large house by the sea, alone and withdrawn despite the obligations of her professional success — literary festivals and Internet celebrity. She is waiting at the bar for Felix, a local with a troubled past who scans shipping boxes in a delivery warehouse for a living and doesn’t read books. Parallel to the relationship they forge is the story of Eileen and Simon — Alice’s best friends in Dublin — who have been struggling to define their own entanglement for years. This is the extent of the plot. It is Rooney’s language and alertness to mood, setting and pacing that make these relationships so profoundly compelling.
Across her work, Rooney has been examining a Western generation born into the relative economic and political privilege of the 1990s, now confronted with a collapsing order and deep inequities. For those who thought their educations would provide protections and pathways to settlement, there is emotional drift and lack of connection. Rooney is a self-proclaimed Marxist, but her novels aren’t polemics against capitalism. Her politics are more subtly infused into her ongoing interest in the power dynamics between men and women, between friends and lovers, between the rich and the working class.
On the surface, “Beautiful World” is indeed low-stakes 30-something angst — and perhaps this is exactly why Rooney has her share of detractors. “Normcore,” “basic” and “millennial” seem to be recurring accusations. In contrast with a literary moment defined by new, underrepresented voices and pulsating political novels filled with cultural reckonings, Rooney’s characters are rather ordinary. And yet, this is one of the most assured, poetic and beautifully calibrated books I’ve read in years. The “technology” of her novel — a term Rooney has used to describe her craft — is precision-tested to meet the way language works today.
In long emails interspersed between the central narrative, Eileen and Alice ruminate about everything from climate change to white privilege, from the history of writing to their ambivalence toward motherhood. In one chapter, Eileen writes to Alice about how “structural symptoms, like the mass drowning of refugees and the repeated weather disasters triggered by climate change, are beginning to be understood as manifestations of a political crisis.” As she shifts to questioning the very purpose of having children while approaching civilizational collapse, she adds, “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.” Hyperbolic, dialectical and eerily familiar, these exchanges form entire chapters. The way Rooney designs these conversations demonstrates her understanding of how so many of us think and speak now, in scattered thoughts, toggling between the registers of global catastrophe and personal shortcomings, gossip and political outrage.
With these open-ended exchanges, Rooney gives the story its roots in political and cultural time. International disasters collide with Tinder messages on glowing screens. Eileen and Alice never reach conclusive positions, but their sincere correspondence demonstrates how the world beyond intervenes even when one is retreating into a private refuge. For all the hand-wringing about millennial self-absorption or social media narcissism, one of the most touching aspects of the generation for and about whom Rooney is writing is a certain earnestness and social consciousness the current political order seems unable to harness.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in 2019, Rooney spoke about her concerns for and commitment to preserving the novel. She told the interviewer that while she is aware of the English novel’s origins as a bourgeois 19th-century entertainment for the upper middle classes, it has a role to play in contemporary culture. One of the most welcome features of “Beautiful World, Where Are You” — amid the publicity, the backlash and the noise — is how Rooney has helped place literary fiction at the center of popular culture. Novelists rarely fill the role that showrunners, actors and influencers have now assumed in mainstream culture. This is a book designed to be widely read and discussed. Even as another series is being filmed of her work — and so too will this, I imagine — Rooney’s commitment to the beauty of the novel feels old-fashioned and sincere in the best way.
Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek and on NPR.
Beautiful World, Where Are You
By Sally Rooney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pp. $28
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