In Sally Rooney’s new novel, a celebrity author fights her own brand
Early on in Sally Rooney’s fraught and lovely new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, it becomes clear that one of the big problems Rooney is struggling with on the page is herself. Or rather, the phenomenon of herself.
Sally Rooney has become that rarest of creatures among literary novelists: a brand name. There are other literary novelists who have bestselling books and hit TV show adaptations of their work, but only Sally Rooney has a hypebeast bucket hat and a pop-up shop. Early galleys of Beautiful World, Where Are You sold for hundreds of dollars online, and even the promotional tote bag her publisher put together can fetch about $80 on the resale market.
Since her first book came out in 2017, Rooney has gone from much-admired young writer to Instagram status symbol to metaphor for everything that is ailing white middle-class millennials. And she’s done it all, apparently, without much caring for the experience.
“I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things — having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself,” says Alice, the celebrity novelist who is one of the four central characters of Beautiful World, Where Are You. “When I put it like that, I think: that’s it? And so what? But the fact is, although it’s nothing, it makes me miserable, and I don’t want to live this kind of life.”
Alice’s discontent with her life and her work is one of the chief animating forces of the novel. Like Rooney’s previous books — 2017’s Conversations with Friends and 2019’s Normal People — Beautiful World, Where Are You might be reductively summarized as being about the interesting love lives of a set of intellectually discontented young Marxist Dubliners. At its core, it is obsessed with the same set of questions that have always preoccupied Rooney: As the world collapses all around us, is it morally defensible to devote your life to love, relationships, and the aesthetic pleasure of books? What if you get rich from it?
The love stories provide the plot skeleton, and Rooney sketches them out with her characteristically sharp eye for the ever-shifting power dynamics of relationships and impressively intimate sex scenes. (Rooney’s tool kit also comes, it must be said, with a tendency to occasionally have characters break up over a misunderstanding so stupid that you kind of just say, “Okay, Sally, we’ll let it go because it’s you.”)
Alice is the principal character in our first dyad. Like Rooney, Alice recently published two novels that were met with a level of acclaim she finds baffling. She has recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and now she is convalescing in an enormous borrowed house in a tiny Irish town. There, she strikes up a relationship with Felix, a warehouse worker she meets on Tinder who tells her flatly that he never plans to read her novels. They embark on a relationship animated simultaneously by Felix’s apparent disdain for Alice and her own fawning admiration for him, and by their shared understanding that this apparent dynamic is fundamentally false, and masks something murkier occurring between them under the surface.
Our other couple is firmly rooted in Dublin. There, Alice’s best friend Eileen works a poorly paid job at a literary magazine, grieves her recent breakup with a longtime boyfriend, and lives in a flatshare with a married couple. She’s nearing 30, and she’s beginning to fear that she’ll never really grow up.
Eileen’s strongest support system is with her childhood friend Simon: 35, handsome, wealthy, and saintly. Eileen and Simon are plainly in love with each other from page one, but their five-year age gap makes the power dynamics of their Emma-Knightley-esque friendship so fraught that they can only approach the possibility of a relationship on tiptoe, pretending they don’t realize what they’re doing.
Rooney gives us these two love stories in highly distant third-person prose. The narrator’s eye is like a camera’s lens, showing us only her characters’ physical movements, their dialogue, the emotions their facial expressions might seem to suggest. We have no access to what’s going on inside their heads, no way of knowing when they are lying to themselves or to each other, outside of minute tells: Alice tucking her hair behind one ear when she runs into Felix; Eileen coming straight home to microwave refrigerated leftovers covered in cling film.
The only time we begin to get a glimpse of their interior monologues comes in the chapters that bridge the book’s two romances: long, discursive emails between Eileen and Alice. There, they comfortably transition back and forth between gossiping about their love lives and careers to heady intellectual debates about why civilizations collapse, whether it matters to the vast majority of humanity if they do, and whether beauty matters when so much of the rest of the world is miserable. Eileen thinks humanity lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, “when plastics became the most widespread material in existence;” Alice thinks it happened after the fall of the Berlin wall.
Beautiful World, Where Are You gets much of its tension from the disconnect between the spare prose of the third-person sections and the rambling soliloquies of the emails between Eileen and Alice. As they remind each other in their emails over and over again, they both know that the world is in a state of crisis. The environment is collapsing, reactionary right-wing political movements are on the upswing, and most of the world’s population lives in grinding poverty to subsidize the unconscionable wealth of the rest of the world.
Yet, in their day-to-day lives, they both seem to find themselves most often concerned with their romantic travails, their careers, their families and friendships, and the art that moves them and brings them pleasure. The contradiction strikes them as by turns insufferably immoral and beautifully human.
This same contradiction is also the animating force behind Conversations with Friends and Normal People. Sally Rooney’s novels are in many ways 19th-century bourgeois marriage novels with more sex and texting, and she and her characters seem to be constantly torn between taking a visceral delight in the pleasures of the form — the sheer emotional power of hoping that Mr. Knightley and Emma will at last finally admit their love for one another — and horrified by their lack of ethical and political power.
Rooney’s earlier novels kept this debate mostly subtextual. It was the visceral, erotic tug between her characters that pulled the reader in, that lit up her sparse prose and turned her books into sensations. Beautiful World, in contrast, is unlikely to be quite such a hit with readers, however successful it is on its own terms. It takes place very determinedly outside of the realm of the body. The love stories exist, but the ethical problem of art is what this novel is capital-A About.
“The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth,” Alice proclaims in one email to Eileen. “Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter? So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world — packing it down tightly underneath the glittering surface of the text.”
“I agree it seems vulgar, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse,” Eileen responds. “But at the same time, that is what I do every day.”
Within the framework of this debate, turning a novelist like Sally Rooney into a merch-hawking celeb does feel as though it’s in such poor taste as to be almost violent. It detaches Rooney the human being and Rooney the artist from Rooney the brand name, whose primary value is its ability to make money for Rooney’s publisher. Books, in this world, are only barely morally defensible as it is, given their limited ability to fix society’s ills. Thinking about them as tools by which to mine wealth and social capital from the celebrity ecosystem — turning novelists into brand names — would be willfully dehumanizing.
But Rooney does offer us a possible solution to the terrible moral problem of the novel. Toward the end of Beautiful World, we take a trip to a wedding, that traditional climax of a marriage novel. At last, the camera lens through which we’ve been seeing the world breaks, and we slip seamlessly into our characters’ minds and bodies, the sensual details that occupy them most, in a long lyrical, ecstatic burst of prose.
Here, finally, is the end of alienation. Here, finally, is what it means to live life in a body, as a human being, not as a dry, mechanical observer or as a bodiless brain in cyberspace. That is what novels can offer us, even bourgeois realist novels, and especially Rooney’s earlier novels. And that, she seems to argue, is what matters most of all.
It is also what makes Beautiful World, for me, even more moving than Normal People or Conversations with Friends, although I think it’s unlikely to be a crowd-pleaser on the level the other two novels were. There is something tender about the way Rooney turns again and again to the novel, almost against her will, as though, Mr. Darcy-like, she has struggled in vain to deny her true feelings. Beautiful World, Where Are You is still very dialectical and Marxist and interested in political debates. Yet it is also a love letter to the novel as a form of art — and, by extension, to the ways in which human beings relate to one another.
“And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine?” Eileen posits at one point. “Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting.”
Beautiful World, Where Are You is a love letter to all of us, to all the ways we love. It’s much sweeter and smarter than all the merch would lead you to believe.
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