Her books pioneer what might be called the not-quite-marriage plot: Disaffected young people with poor communication skills have sex, find themselves hurt and eventually, sort of, work it out. But her new book — “Beautiful World, Where Are You” — takes a subtly different turn, one that tracks a similar evolution in her generation’s mind-set. Rooney’s characters (and her audience) have the same problems they always did — the rent’s too high, the jobs feel meaningless, the elders are useless and the politics a sham — but now they’re contemplating new solutions.
“Beautiful World” follows acclaimed author (and obvious Rooney stand-in) Alice and her best friend, Eileen, an editorial assistant at a Dublin literary journal. The two hash out their concerns, grievances and philosophies via long, meandering emails — a correspondence that has been criticized for its seeming solipsism, but which exemplifies what Rooney does best: capturing her cohort’s voices, bringing their cares to life.
Alice and Eileen can’t buy a sandwich without thinking of “the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the backbreaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations.” Sharing Wikipedia entries about the Late Bronze Age, they wonder whether civilization is on the brink of a “general systems collapse.”
Hovering behind it all is the knowledge that the Earth is dying in their — our — time. “Aren’t we unfortunate babies,” Rooney writes, “to be born when the world ended? After that there was no chance for the planet, and no chance for us.”
This thrumming anxiety isn’t new. But the characters’ responses are. In the earlier novels, Rooney’s characters are typical young moderns — they name-check left-wing theorists and feign political action, critique the idea of meritocracy while scrambling up the ladder — but their coping mechanisms are shallow: They sleep with married people and beg for violent sex to numb or express their pain.
In “Beautiful World,” however, they’re exploring a different way of being. Now for spoilers: The characters trade in showy declarations of Marxism for a quieter search for meaning. They’re deeply curious about religion. Casual sex is critiqued; commitment holds the most allure. A church wedding is the setting for one of the book’s most transcendent moments. A baby even appears.
Rather than diving into wild experimentation, Alice and Eileen tentatively embrace a small life. As one reviewer put it, the youth have gone “trad.” And in the end, they are much, much happier than any of Rooney’s previous creations have been.
What to make of this?
Progress was once defined for my generation as moving onward and upward, often alone — toward more accumulation, more success, a finer-tuned rationality and proud independence. But Rooney’s characters are rejecting this, reflecting something in line with the shifting zeitgeist. Witness the newfound disdain for “career” as an aspiration; the nostalgic aesthetic of “cottagecore” (even Target is selling prairie dresses now); the righteous skepticism of political systems and championing of mutual aid.
Some might read this trend as defeatism. But I’m inclined to read it as defiance — an attempt to live fully despite a crumbling world, focused neither inward (obsessed with individual success) nor far outward (engaging in theoretical activism), but on the present moment and one’s present circle. “It’s still better to love something than nothing,” Rooney writes, “better to love someone than no one.”
My peers, like Rooney’s characters, are increasingly attracted to community, to dependency. We’re finding that relationships aren’t just the backdrop to one’s internal life — they’re the whole point. In “Beautiful World,” Alice and Eileen search for something to believe in and begin to discover that certain “old-fashioned” proclivities — whether for Jesus or classical art — may not be so bad after all.
In Rooney’s hands, this doesn’t come off as the inevitable lurch toward conservatism, as a consequence of growing up. The ironic impulse is still very much present: Alice and Eileen are Christianity-curious but not quite ready to convert; they’re sure to note that nostalgia could be “intrinsically fascistic.”
But even the inquiry is a move toward something new. Rather than giving in to the “sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life,” Rooney’s characters are finding ways to create their own “Beautiful World” — an audacious task, as the real world we’re inheriting has proved to be anything but.