In Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful people, where are you, one of the main characters, Eileen, attends a poetry reading hosted by the literary magazine where she works. The theme of this event is “the crisis”. Some poets use the urge to navel-gazing, reading works about personal upheavals; one “spoke for ten minutes about the difficulties of finding a publisher and only had time to read one poem”. Later, Eileen told her friend Simon that “we had a poem by Trump.” The very thought makes him “sincerely wish for the embrace of death.”
Here, Rooney illustrates an unfortunate but glaring truth – the majority of fictions that attempt to speak of the present moment are embarrassing. With its overtly contemporary references, its moralizing tone more than ever and its false artistic urgency in times of crisis, the political novel can be an excruciating experience.
Fortunately, Rooney has a rare knack for portraying even the most frightening elements of contemporary experience in precise yet understated prose. This is particularly striking because his first two successful novels, Conversations with friends and Normal people, written when Rooney was in his twenties, concerned the serious romantic, political and moral epiphanies of 21-year-olds – and their depiction of millennial life in Ireland in the 21st century included campus politics, media use social and instant messaging, and most importantly, lots of explicit sex scenes.
Their protagonists – intellectually confident but emotionally insecure Trinity students – are never belittled by Rooney, who conjures up their complicated relationships with thrilling immediacy. They made her the novelist of the moment: Normal people was adapted into an award-winning television series; advance copies of his novels have grossed hundreds of dollars on Ebay; and in countless articles, Rooney has been positioned, to her horror, as the voice of her generation. “Your name becomes a sort of floating signifier that people can attach to things that have nothing to do with you,” she recently told the New York Times. “And you say to yourself, wait, no, I want that back!” It’s mine! I have to use it to get a doctor’s appointment and stuff!
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Now Rooney is 30 years old and, in Beautiful world, his characters also arrive in their late twenties. Alice and Eileen became best friends in college – Alice was outspoken and eccentric; Eileen was warm and conscientious, winning academic awards. At 24, Alice was awarded a book contract for $ 250,000; Now 29, she is a famous writer, having published two hugely popular novels receiving intense critical attention – “mostly positive first, then a few negative pieces reacting to the positivity of the initial cover. “.
Like Rooney, Alice is deeply suspicious and disillusioned with her own success. “I can’t believe I have to put up with these things – having articles written about me, seeing my picture on the internet and reading comments about myself,” she wrote in an email to Eileen. “I keep meeting this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. She moved to the west coast of Ireland after a blackout. Beautiful world opens up on an awkward first date with a man she meets there – Felix, who works in a warehouse.
Meanwhile, Eileen earns € 20,000 a year as an editor at a literary magazine in Dublin, where she wrote a single essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s novels. She has broken up with her three-year-old boyfriend, and is re-negotiating a flirtatious dynamic with her oldest friend, Simon, a practicing political advisor and Catholic she has known since she was 15 and he 20. Beautiful world alternates between chapters chronicling the faltering relationships of Alice and Felix and Eileen and Simon, and emails between Alice and Eileen: meandering dispatches about right-wing politics, their biological clocks, their books, their religion and, yes, what this period of “crisis” “for culture and the arts” means.
Rooney has cited Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti as his favorite writers, and has previously published an essay on Rachel Cusk’s novels. These authors are often grouped together under the label “autofiction” – arguably the dominant mode in contemporary fiction – which deliberately blurs the line between narrator and author. But despite sharing some inflected self-awareness through the internet with writers such as Lerner, Rooney is more often compared to George Eliot and Jane Austen. And although she has more in common with Alice than any of her other protagonists, in Beautiful world she moves further away from her characters, keeping them at an anthropological distance.
Alice and Eileen are presented as simply “a woman”; it takes a few pages for the narrator to start calling them by their names. The two friends are physically separated from each other for most of the novel, a device that allows the intimacy of the letters – but even here they keep each other, and the reader, at a distance. They seem emotionally cooler than the characters in his previous work and don’t radiate off the page with the same intensity. Therefore, Beautiful world often lacks the dynamism that defined Rooney’s previous books.
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In an email, Eileen explains that she unexpectedly met her ex-boyfriend on the street. This kind of event fueled the action of Normal people, but is condensed in Beautiful world in the sentence: “I’m probably thinking about all of this now because I saw Aidan randomly on the street the other day and immediately had a heart attack and died.” ” In Conversations with friends, Frances has an emotional achievement in a church that is told over several pages. Here, in a letter from Paris, Alice writes that she found an empty church near her hotel: “There I sat for about 20 minutes bathed in the slow, serious air of holiness and wept. some picturesque tears over the nobility of Jesus. These are funny phrases, but their devious irony suggests that the characters’ psychodramas take place somewhere off the page, unseen.
The most vibrant sequences are the sex scenes, which are some of Rooney’s most exciting and best. They are also unabashedly heterosexual. Eileen Prizes opens the sexual dynamic between her and Simon when she tells him, over the phone, a fantasy involving “a little wife” who venerates him “like a father”. “I offend your feminist principles. I’ll stop, she said. “Please don’t do it,” he replies. Alice and Felix, too, go into great detail about their fantasies about each other before having sex. “I like to imagine that you really want me,” Alice told her, “a lot, not just a normal amount.” It is here – in the private experiences that Rooney is so adept at capturing – that the novel is most alive.
Rooney’s early novels have sometimes been criticized for a perceived hypocrisy in their politics: that the radicalism of its characters is undermined by the more conventional plots they implement. In the Mock exam, Helen Charman wrote that “Rooney’s characters seem to push the boundaries that the tropes of history impose on them” but are “encompassed and overpowered by the relentless motivation of a traditional love story”. In Beautiful world, Rooney embraces these critiques of his work – though maybe it’s more of a headache. The epigraph of the novel is by Ginzburg: “I know very well what I am, that is to say a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it.
Alice suggests that the novel works by “removing the truth from the world” – regardless of global human suffering. We care about the love life of fictional characters, she writes, “if, and only if, we have managed to forget all the things more important than that, which is everything.” She considers her own work “the worst culprit in this regard”. Eileen replies, “Alice, do you think the problem with the contemporary novel is just the problem with contemporary life? It might be foolish to focus on “the trivialities of sex and friendship” in the midst of the apocalypse. But, admits Eileen, “that’s what I do every day.”
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While in his previous novels, Rooney’s narration was focused through his protagonists, in Beautiful world, the emails reflect the moods of Alice and Eileen. When alone or unhappy, they despair that civilization is in final decline: “The air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is full of microplastics, and our food is contaminated with cancerous chemicals in Teflon.” . But when their relationships are going well, they find beauty in the world. As Eileen writes of a taxi ride through Dublin, lit up at night: “I started to feel it again – the closeness, the possibility of beauty, like a light gently radiating from behind the visible world, illuminating everything. Although Rooney devotes more space than ever to broad concepts such as religion, “the ethics of care” and identity politics, the book’s framework is not radical or even particularly political. This is another novel about sex and friendship.
In a story that relies on relationships, it seems eccentric that the main characters only meet more than three-quarters of the novel. When Eileen and Simon end up visiting Alice and Felix, lingering resentments surface and a new dynamic among the quartet begins to emerge. Watching Simon and Eileen navigate the terrain of their relationship so closely, Felix says, “Now we’re having fun. But we have to wait for page 268 for that kind of fun to begin. When Alice and Eileen finally have the argument the novel was built towards, it quickly ends and seems quickly corrected. We are only told that they are discussing “things that happened a long time ago”. We are not allowed full access to their private world.
The meeting of the four characters coincides with a change of perspective, further away from the action. It’s as if Rooney is looking at his characters from above, or standing above a dollhouse, peering through lighted windows, like Eileen does from her cab. The meeting of Alice and Eileen in a train station is considered a “painting”; they are again nameless, “two women kissing”. At Alice’s, the narrator zooms in and out on the building: “Inside, four bodies are sleeping, waking up, still sleeping. On their side, or lying on their backs, quilts overturned, they passed through dreams in silence. And already now behind the house the sun was rising.
The last pages of the novel refer to the coronavirus pandemic – a “moment of crisis” if ever there was one. But there is no sense of the global devastation caused by the virus outbreak. It is simply a setting for the moving but almost aggressively conventional ending of the novel, which is far sharper than the ambiguous conclusions of Rooney’s other works. Like a 19th century novel, it solves material and emotional problems, and borders on the twee.
After all the talk about the “taking the truth out of the world” novel, it sounds like an act of defiance. I’m a little writer, Rooney protests. Just try to tell me no.
Beautiful people, where are you
Faber & Faber, 352 pages, £ 16.99