book review

Sally Rooney in the Struggle

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Early on in Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, a young man named Felix introduces the semi-famous writer he’s semi-seeing to a room full of his friends: “This is Alice … She’s a novelist.” His friends do what anyone confronted by a supposedly well-known person would do: They Google her. In front of Alice, they list the details of her Wikipedia page, from “Literary work” to “Adaptations” to “Personal life.” Felix, growing visibly uncomfortable, deflects by downplaying the fact that Alice has a Wikipedia page at all. “Anyone can have one of those,” he says to Alice. “You probably wrote it yourself.” But Alice rejects this collapse between her internet persona and her personal life. “No,” she replies, “just the books.”

It’s a scene that one could easily read through the lens of Rooney’s reputation. The 30-year-old Irish writer has published two novels before this — her 2017 debut, Conversations With Friends, quickly followed by Normal People — each to a tide of adulation. Following that was the predictable backlash, especially around Rooney’s self-proclaimed Marxist politics (which she frequently cites in interviews) and the lack of Marxist praxis in her mostly orthodox romance novels. “Up till now, the books that I’ve written have been about people kind of like me,” reflected Rooney upon the massive popularity of her first two novels. “Now that my life is different, I don’t know to what extent I can keep doing that or how much of my social world I can now accommodate in my writing.” Reading Rooney’s latest, you can feel her struggling to reconcile her own strange reality with the ideals that have become so much part of her image.

Beautiful World, Where Are You builds on the conventions of Rooney’s prior work, exploring themes of millennial romance, female friendship, post-2008 economic precarity, class differences, and the existential malaise of how a (white middle-class) person should be. The story follows two pairs of lovers hovering around 30 over the course of a few short months. There’s the successful novelist Alice, who, following a mental breakdown, rents a rural seaside house in the town where she meets Felix, a rugged warehouse worker. And there’s Alice’s best friend, Eileen, who works at a literary magazine in Dublin, where she seemingly spends most of her time flirting with and then friend-zoning Simon, a left-wing government policy adviser several years her elder. As with Marianne and Connell in Normal People, Eileen and Simon have known each other since childhood and are similarly “two people who … apparently could not leave one another alone.”

Most of the book unfolds with Rooney’s typical effervescent prose, whose extreme readability lies partly in its narrative economy. Characters attend dinner parties, go shopping, and have mostly sweet, mostly straight sex. With the exception of Felix, they are rarely depicted while actually working. Some of Rooney’s best phrases come from descriptions of the natural environment, as when the omniscient narrator lingers on “the sea to the west, a length of dark cloth,” or the “crescent moon hanging low over the dark water. Tide returning now with a faint repeating rush over the sand.” Rooney’s title, Beautiful World, Where Are You, is drawn from a Schiller poem and gestures longingly outward. But the novel itself largely takes place in Ireland, alternating between Alice’s life in Ballina and Eileen’s in Dublin. Sprinkled throughout are Rooney’s obligatory touches of wine-drinking, delicate cotton nightgowns, cashmere sweaters, and lots of theorizing on — though no practicing of — anti-capitalism. As in her past books, the life of the body trumps the life of the mind: I continue to find Rooney to be a remarkably unembarrassing writer of sex scenes and, if anything, wished this novel had more of them.

Sounds fun, right? Well, sort of. While Rooney’s newest book luxuriates in the same bourgeois comforts as her first two — the domestic details and interpersonal dramas that make reading Austen so pleasurable — it adds yet another, more pedantic layer of realist detail to her characters’ lives. Between alternating chapters on Alice and Eileen’s day-to-days, Rooney inserts interludes made of alternating emails between Alice and Eileen, in which subtext of millennial malaise, economic precarity, and the value of writing contemporary novels become the literal text of their exchange. It’s an epistolary novel meets Ulysses lite. The aesthetic goal is admirable, but the effect is haphazard, as the two parts of the novel never quite cohere: While one side occupies itself with the events of real life, the emails burrow into debates over “real life,” scare quotes courtesy of Alice and Eileen.

One might expect these chapters to at least offer deeper insight into their friendship, but they more often read like extended abstract musings on the general state of the world. “I’ve been thinking lately about right-wing politics (haven’t we all),” writes Alice in her first email to Eileen, “and how it is that conservatism (the social force) came to be associated with rapacious market capitalism.” Eileen’s response: “I’ve also been thinking lately about time and political conservatism, although in a different way. At the moment I think it’s fair to say we’re living in a period of historical crisis, and this idea seems to be accepted by most of the population.” These messages sound as implausible as the notion of two 29-year-old best friends doing all their correspondence via long email. (Alice and Eileen do not text or call one another; even one-sentence communiqués are sent via email.) As the novel unfolds, the stilted and superficial cadence of their letters hints at deeper troubles. This conversation between friends is dominated by thinky tangents, but the unspoken tension driving it is whether, and when, Eileen will finally visit her faraway friend. It’s an interesting conceit — to make theorization the deferral of real talk, real life — but it doesn’t make these sections any more readable.

When recently asked whether Rooney thought much about the portrayal of online life in her latest novel, the author said no, adding, “I also haven’t read much contemporary fiction over the last few years, so I haven’t been keeping up with developments in this area.” Nonetheless, Rooney still manages to share traits with some of this year’s other so-called internet novels, from the clipped, wry cadences of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This to the defensive irony of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. “Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life?” begins one of Eileen’s emails. “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,” responds Alice, in another, before quickly adding, “My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard.” If this is the famous self-awareness frequently associated with Rooney’s fiction, then it’s self-awareness approaching self-parody.

By having her characters repeatedly and explicitly fret over what it means to write in an era of economic and environmental collapse, Rooney’s third book reveals itself as preemptively and perhaps a little too conscious about how it will be received. Her stock characters have hardly evolved: The story once again revolves around eccentrically irritable and conspicuously thin white women and their implausibly hot and tolerant white suitors who range from the professional to the working class. What has changed, however, is the degree to which the novel seems to anxiously belabor its own status, especially in Alice’s emails.

It is difficult not to interpret the character as a stand-in for Rooney. “Have I told you I can’t read contemporary novels anymore?” writes Alice in one of her emails to Eileen. “I think it’s because I know too many of the people who write them. I see them all the time at festivals, drinking red wine and talking about who’s publishing who in New York.” (Rooney spent a year working on this novel as a Cullman Center fellow at the New York Public Library.) Throughout, Alice’s depression seems to hinge less on the state of the world’s immiserated surplus populations or climate change but on her own status as a writer successful enough to be flown out to literary conferences and rent an entire house just for herself. “If novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels — and quite rightly!” asserts Alice at one point. “Maybe then we would finally have to confront how wrong, how deeply philosophically wrong, the current system of literary production really is — how it takes writers away from normal life, shuts the door behind them, and tells them again and again how special they are and how important their opinions must be.” Frequently, Alice threatens never to write another novel again.

Rooney herself has often questioned the value of her labor. Her politics do suggest there are other more urgent and materially valuable things she might be doing. And “even if a book is full of Marxist propaganda,” admitted the writer in a 2019 interview, “it’s still sealed off from real political potential because of its position as a commodity in this market.” The emails in Rooney’s latest novel are her most overt attempt to counter that. Ultimately, though, these long philosophical tangents on the value of fiction, the meaning of art, and the decline of beauty read like overindulgent and anxious attempts to preemptively control the cacophony that surrounds the reception of her work. To read them is to feel the discourse winning.

Sally Rooney in the Struggle