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Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World Is Right Here

The characters of 'Beautiful World, Where Are You' show that worrying about our personal lives and worrying about capitalism don't have to be mutually exclusive – and that happiness doesn't have to mean capitulation.

Credit: TG Time

Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You tells a story of friendship and romantic love between four characters. Alice is a brittle novelist who resents every moment of her success and is always saying things ‘cooly’. Eileen is downtrodden, stuck in a badly paid editorial assistant job at a literary journal and so broke she’s forced to buy knock-off UTI medicine online.

Simon—who is so perfect he can at times read like a Mills and Boon fantasy for millennial leftists—is tall, witty, astonishingly handsome, and works for a progressive parliamentary group. Felix, who lives in the small coastal town to which Alice has retreated and works in an Amazon-like warehouse, is capable of cruelty but redeems himself by being good in bed and having a nice singing voice.

Rooney’s latest is funny and poignant. But it is also more explicitly political than her earlier novels, as well as containing real profundity about what it means to be alive today – and the impasse at which many of us find ourselves.

‘I looked at the internet for too long today and started feeling depressed,’ Eileen writes to Alice at one point. Beautiful World hasn’t really been discussed as an ‘internet novel’, a term readily applied to Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts or Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This earlier this year.

This seems puzzling: one of its greatest themes is the indignity of being extremely online. One early passage lists the pieces of information Eileen encounters while mindlessly scrolling at work, from ‘a news report about a horrific natural disaster’ to a ‘recondite joke requiring familiarity with several other internet jokes in order to be even vaguely comprehensible.’ To make matters worse, Eileen is heartbroken over a man who posts pictures of funny animals with self-mocking captions and whose Twitter bio reads ‘local sad boy. normal brain haver. check out the soundcloud.’

The twee, glib banality of social media presses up against a pain so intense it threatens to engulf her. Rooney doesn’t care about being relatable (‘It’s not my job to populate my books with particular types of characters that I imagine other people might find relatable,’ she told the Guardian in August), but this is surely a humiliation many of us know well.

The novel is in part epistolary, with a series of email exchanges between Alice and Eileen at its centre. They talk about capitalism, climate crisis, religion, and the decline of beauty in the modern world, as well as their own lives. This element has proved divisive – certainly, I know a number of people who can’t stand it. Writing in the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen described the emails as ‘pretty vapid’.

But if people find these exchanges (in which the characters say things like ‘I suppose you think this is all extremely rudimentary and maybe even that I’m un-dialectical’) to be insufferable, perhaps this is merely the rage of Caliban seeing his own Twitter feed reflected in the mirror. Personally, I found them illuminating, but there’s something undeniably self-indulgent in the way Alice and Eileen loop back on their own arguments and explain things to each other which they already know.

As with Conversations With Friends, talking becomes a form of stasis; the political views the characters have are practically inert. Eileen, who is invested in seeing herself as a Marxist, is not a member of a union, nor is she active in the socialist movement. Instead, she’s just saying stuff. Lorentzen argues the novel ‘partakes of the spirit of political futility that has become a cliché in Anglophone fiction over the past half decade’, which is perhaps true. But I think it comments upon, and even satirises, the indulgence of futility, rather than merely reproducing it.

Readers are entitled to find this constant fretting annoying, but I disagree that this quality of annoyingness is a failure of the text. I confess that I like Rooney’s writing so much that I’m inclined to refute any proposed flaw with ‘actually, that’s the point! You think the characters are sanctimonious? Newsflash: they’re supposed to be!’ But perhaps I’d be less defensive if Rooney’s critics weren’t so inclined to interpret her novels like thinkpieces and her characters’ dialogue as straightforward self-expression. In Beautiful World, Alice and Eileen are both irritating in their own ways. Their endless discourse is self-indulgent and contributes nothing to the betterment of the world. But these are character studies, not manuals in how to be a likeable person or effective political actor.

People in life are rarely one thing or the other, and I like that the flaws of Rooney’s characters never entirely discredit their political principles. It’s not the case that they are eventually exposed as foolish hypocrites who pretend to care about the world (or Marxism) but are really only concerned with the minutiae of their own lives. It’s not either or: the self-indulgence and the sincerity exist side-by-side.

I liked, too, how Alice and Eileen move from an elevated—or even pretentious—mode of discourse when discussing politics to plainer speaking at times of emotional crisis: ‘And Alice,’ reads one of Eileen’s emails, ‘I do feel like a failure, and in a way my life really is nothing, and very few people care what happens in it. It’s so hard to see the point sometimes, when the things in life I think are meaningful turn out to mean nothing, and the people who are supposed to love me don’t.’ The way the characters shift between registers affords these moments of anguish a stripped-back power.

Throughout the novel, the characters agonise about how seriously they’re entitled to take their own lives, and to what extent their concerns are trivial in the face of mass suffering in the Global South, ‘the mass drowning of refugees’ and ‘the repeated weather disasters triggered by climate change.’ At one point, Alice has an unpleasant semi-epiphany while shopping for food. ‘This is,’ she writes to Eileen, ‘the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations. All for this! This convenience shop!’

The conveniences of modern life, and the exploitation on which our supply chains depend, inspires a sense of horror. The relative luxury to which they have access affords little happiness: ‘I don’t need all these cheap clothes and imported foods and plastic containers,’ Eileen writes, ‘I don’t even think they improve my life. They just create waste and make me unhappy anyway. (Not that I’m comparing my dissatisfaction to the misery of actually oppressed peoples.)’

This kind of privilege-checking is typical of Eileen. While often self-pitying, she feels her unhappiness to be an affront to those who have it worse. In this regard, Alice is a little more contradictory; she would be willing to consider herself privileged in comparison to a factory worker in Bangalore, for instance, but is very prickly indeed when anyone in her immediate milieu suggests she might have had it easy as a successful novelist, forming a constant backdrop of unease.

If using global exploitation as a backdrop for a novel about relationships sounds crass, Beautiful World makes a case both for and against. One of Alice’s emails functions as a kind of self-lacerating meta critique. She rails against successful novelists writing their ‘sensitive little novels about ‘real life’’ – it makes her want to vomit. ‘Why do they pretend to be obsessed with death and grief and fascism – when really they’re obsessed with whether their latest book will be reviewed in the New York Times?’

It would be a mistake to confuse Alice with Rooney herself, yet I get the impression that as readers, we’re not intended to exclude Beautiful World from this category of sensitive little novels (indeed, Rooney has said she agreed with Alice’s perspective as she was writing it). Alice writes: ‘Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of an increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter?’ Her own work, she concludes, is the ‘worst culprit’ in this regard.

But if these emails constitute a form of self-critique for the text itself, Eileen’s response could be read as an apologia: for the novel, for Rooney’s larger oeuvre, for all of us who lead inconsequential lives. While she agrees that ‘it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse’, she suggests that ‘there is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call ‘breaking up or staying together’ (!), because at the end of our lives, when there’s nothing left in front of us, it’s still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing… and I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive – because we are so stupid about each other.’

Beautiful World sets up the problem of how to live with meaning during a time of crisis; how to escape the paralysis that comes with being able to diagnose, with accuracy and sophistication, what’s wrong with the world while feeling unable to do anything about it. It isn’t didactic, but what resolution its characters are afforded is perhaps somewhat conservative. Eileen and Alice, you’ll be disappointed to learn, don’t overthrow the forces of global capitalism. Instead, they end up in long-term relationships and Eileen becomes pregnant.

The answer these characters hit upon, then, is the retreat into the personal, and even into the heteronormative, bourgeois family. ‘I know it’s not the life you imagined for me, Alice – buying a house and having children with a boy I grew up with. It’s not the life I imagined for myself, either. But it’s the life I have, the only one.’ This nods to the idea that for someone like Eileen—someone so brilliant and unconventional!—to start a family could be viewed as a failure or compromise.

But she is happy, and the case she makes for a kind of progressive natalism to be moving: ‘We have to try either way to build a world they can live in. And I feel in a strange sense that I want to be on the children’s side, and on the side of their mothers; to be with them, not just as an observer, admiring them from a distance, speculating about their best interests, but one of them.’ It’s possible, Beautiful World suggests, to make a life in the world as it actually exists (although this may be dependent on achieving financial security or finding a boyfriend), and this doesn’t entail giving up on trying to change it. This is hopeful: a rejection of nihilism rather than a capitulation to it, and not as conservative as it appears at first glance. You can’t, in the end, foreclose the possibility of happiness until after the revolution.