Across the world, readers are lining up to buy 30-year-old Irish writer Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. It follows Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), the latter having sold more than three million copies and been made into a BBC TV series. Another TV series, based on Conversations with Friends, is under way.
Rooney’s publisher Faber has set up a Shoreditch, London pop-up shop selling her novels and others she recommends. Given an epigraph and several references to Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg in Beautiful World, along with discussions of Dostoyevsky and Henry James, this promises to be an intriguing collection.
Coffee carts emblazoned with the book’s modular cover images by Manshen Lo will minister to readers queued outside bookshops. There’s a sunny yellow bucket hat for sale alongside tote bags and tees as well as a hashtag, #BWWAY. Many people consider this kind of thing ridiculous and nauseating. One of those people is Alice, the 30-year-old novelist who, with her best friend, Eileen, is central to Beautiful World.
Alice has enjoyed the same rare kind of literary success as Rooney, becoming a millionaire after her recent novel, which is now being made into a film. Adulation has come hand in hand with backlash, “negative pieces reacting to the fawning positivity” in a toxic cocktail of celebration, hype and bile. Alice, recently released from hospital after a nervous breakdown, has moved to a small coastal town. Eileen, her friend from college days, is an editor at a small Dublin literary magazine.
In the style of a Shakespearean comedy or Jane Austen novel, there is a symmetrical male cast. The main two are Eileen’s friend from childhood, Simon, and Alice’s Tinder date, Felix, who works in a warehouse. This – as in Shakespeare – is complicated by a small current of queerness, in that both Alice and Felix are bisexual, as well as by dating apps, seeing other people, and by the fact that Alice and Eileen feel as though they are “standing in the last lighted room before the darkness”, a time when there is “no chance for the planet”.
At a glance this is, like Rooney’s previous work, a novel about friendship and love. Or, as Alice says scathingly of her own novels, about “breaking up or staying together”. There are sex scenes that are variously exploratory, anodyne, awkward and tender. Is such a novel impossible and even unethical in the context of “the immense human misery unfolding before us”? It seems, Eileen writes to Alice, “vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse”. Yet aren’t relationships exactly what many people care about “when they’re on their deathbeds”?
These observations are part of an exchange of long emailed essayistic letters between the two. This serious, loving and gnarly conversation produces a meta-fictive consideration of fiction, art and love, and who or what is – or wants to be – “normal”. Its prickly counter-narrative picks from within at the seams of the very kind of novel it is part of.
Rooney, like Alice and Eileen, is a Marxist. Alice is scathing about capitalism’s encroachment into the literary world and the marketing machinery her success sucks her into. Bloodthirsty, Alice says. Yet it is also lavishing. “They never tire of giving me awards, do they?”
She, on the other hand, is as sick of receiving the awards as she is of other writers bemoaning bad reviews and insufficient publicity. She isn’t tired, however, of the rushing current of creative energy: “... like God had put his hand on my head and filled me with the most intense desire I had ever felt”.
Then there is the cult of celebrity. Alice feels she never invited any of it. In an interesting negation, Eileen assures her, “I’m not trying to make you feel that your horrible life is in fact a privilege.” Nothing in this novel is easy or fixed.
Even the narrator’s omniscience is hesitant. The syntax rolls back over established facts, so that after Alice is introduced, she is referred to as “the woman named Alice”. Alice tells Felix about her best friend, “a woman whose name she said was Eileen”. Characters discuss other people, “both of whom the woman seemed to know by name”. There’s something artfully sceptical, bemused or confected about this.
Like the resistant pull of the meta-narrative’s awkward fabric, these are deliberate glitches in what might otherwise be mistaken for the seamlessness of a rattling good tale. A pernickety, forensic exactitude in the laying-out of facts (a “twenty-eight minute walk”, trousers whose fabric is “a little shiny”, a social media post with 127 likes) is often in tension with a sense of cloudiness or provisionality.
The first encounter between Alice and Felix exemplifies this. Only gradually is it revealed that their prickly, hackled meeting is a date. As the action tacks along, gathering momentum, the characters navigate (and Eileen and Alice analyse) questions of global warming, children, marriage, God, celebrity, capitalism and fiction.
This gradual accretion of narrative energy builds as the four gather at Alice’s house. There are dinners, parties, beach trips – presumably the inspiration for the bucket hat – knittings and unravellings. The narrative drive of breaking up and staying together swells and dwindles as Rooney’s larger artistic and ethical questions frame it. It makes #BWWAY a “normal” kind of novel that flickers with inklings of maverick potential as Rooney chafes against the publishing machinery that now defines her.
Faber Fiction, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 11, 2021 as "Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney".
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