BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU, by Sally Rooney, entertains, perplexes, and made me think. Rooney has a fabulous ear for dialogue, and her precise details and a courageous vulnerability beneath the awkwardness drew me in as her characters navigate friendship and love.
Alice, a novelist, is best friends with Eileen, who works for a literary magazine. Almost immediately after meeting Felix on a dating app, Alice invites him to come with her to Rome. Eileen, meanwhile, is in love with her childhood friend, Simon, who works in politics. Simon is also in love with Eileen, but whenever they come close, one of them pushes the other away as the characters waver between intimacy and isolation in a world, in Eileen’s words, on the brink of self-extinction.
I know we agree that civilization is presently in its decadent declining phase, and that lurid ugliness is the predominant visual feature of modern life. Cars are ugly, buildings are ugly, mass-produced disposable consumer goods are unspeakably ugly. The air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is full of microplastics, and our food is contaminated by cancerous Teflon chemicals. Our quality of life is in decline, and along with it, the quality of aesthetic experience available to us. The contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions) irrelevant; mainstream cinema is family-friendly nightmare porn funded by car companies and the US Department of Defense; and visual art is primarily a commodity market for oligarchs. (219)
Eileen’s skill in skewering our present moment happens over one of many email exchanges between Alice and Eileen as they discuss capitalism, global warming, economic inequality, religion and the struggle to find meaning in a world in which, as Rooney explains in an interview in The Guardian, “…it’s in the interests of profit-driven industries to exploit… (people’s) gifts and to turn the gifted person into a kind of commodity.” She’s clearly talking about her own uneasy relationship with success and its costs. These themes, though, take shape in her characters’ lives in ways that explore the question beyond Rooney’s personal experience.
The philosophical musings alternate with real-time scenes in which Rooney’s characters go to work, drive to the beach, make dinner and have sex, as the reader wonders whether Alice and Felix will stay together or whether Eileen and Simon, now in their late twenties and early thirties, will get married. Rooney zooms into the idiosyncratic particularities of her characters with a sharp, riveting eye for detail that brings the scenes wonderfully alive. Looming over these intimate moments are the characters’ existential angst of how to create a meaningful life in a deteriorating world.
Rooney’s prose mirrors her characters alienation and disaffection when she switches point-of-view from close third person to a distant, observing omniscient. This can create the disorienting impression that Rooney is writing scene direction for her latest screenplay. But her use of omniscient also highlights the artifice of the novel as a form. The omniscient voice creates space between the reader and the characters which highlights the ways we see and are seen, observe and are observed. Rooney’s narrative choices mimic her characters’ difficulty in feeling fully at ease or intimate with one another, themselves or their world.
The novel opens with this omniscient point-of view.
A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door. Her appearance was neat and tidy: white house, fair hair tucked behind her ears. She glanced at the screen of her phone, on which was displayed a messaging interface, and then looked back at the door again. (1)
The reader is being held at arm’s length even as they’re brought into the scene, while the precise details, as well as Rooney’s gifted ear for dialogue, bring the scene alive. This uneasy alliance between the reader and the writer is unsettling. It reflects our selfie-stick world where the line between authentic, lived experience and a fabricated reality is blurred. In one passage, Alice, who, like Rooney, is a successful writer, shares her view on fame.
People who intentionally become famous—I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it—are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill. The fact that we are exposed to these people everywhere in our culture, as if they are not only normal but attractive and enviable, indicates the extent of our disfiguring social disease. (59)
This blunt critique is jarring but also refreshing, and the tension between these big-picture questions and the characters’ daily struggles with each other, themselves and their world creates sparks of friction in surprising ways.
When Alice asks Felix what he does, he tells her he works in a warehouse.
Don’t you like it, then?
Jesus no, he said. I fucking hate the place. But they wouldn’t be paying me to do something I liked, would they? That’s the thing about work, if it was any good you’d do it for free. (6)
Felix’s response challenges Alice, and the reader, to question how value is ascribed in a consumerist, capitalist world where work, pay and value are horribly askew.
After drinks at the hotel, Alice asks Felix, Would you like to see my house?…I’ve been wanting to show it off but I don’t know anyone to invite…(8)
This backhanded invitation reveals Alice’s solitude, which is an isolation that affects all the characters in the novel in different ways. Flawed and awkward, they draw together and pull apart with painful self-consciousness in scenes that can be uncomfortable to read, but which are also human and relatable in their honesty and vulnerability.
In this disaffected world, the search for the beautiful can feel bleak. There’s pleasure, though, in the simple rituals of love and friendship. Simon finds solace in his religious faith, and when Alice hears Felix sing, his voice is startling and sublime, and tears stream down Alice’s cheeks. Eileen and Alice are also sustained by their friendship. In one scene, they embrace on the platform of a train station.
…were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not un-reality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world? (263)
The reviews of BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU are uneven, with those who love it and, not surprisingly, those who don’t like it at all. The novel raises difficult questions, but even if the search for answers can be messy and inconvenient, I found it exhilarating to read a novel that captures our time without trying to show it as less clumsy than it is. Rooney’s characters aren’t always likeable, but their imperfections make them human, kind of like us.
In the words of the narrator, that omniscient observer who might be Rooney, or one of us, (t)heir conversation seemed to have had some effect on them both, but it was impossible to decipher the nature of the effect, its meaning, how it felt to them at that moment, whether it was something shared between them or something about which they felt differently. Perhaps they didn’t know themselves, and these were questions without fixed answers, and the work of making meaning was still going on. (133)