I just finished Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. I’m not giving away any spoilers with this reveal: The Irish author’s third book is narrowly focused on four characters; one, a writer, seems to be a stand-in for Rooney. The plot is straight out of a Brontë novel — there’s even a brooding Heathcliffian love interest — and the prose can be distractingly cold and distant. But the questions this book forces readers to contemplate — wow. I’ve never read anything like it. Have you?
There are challenges. Rooney subtlety examines class and classism but her characters never acknowledge the privilege of their white, heteronormative lives. A main character’s mental illness is diminished and dismissed. Throughout the book, the author sets up roadblocks — miscommunication, primarily — to prevent the two couples from ending up together; the frequent stalls seem artificial and it’s no surprise when they do.
But that’s all surface. Deeper ideas are developed in an ongoing email thread between the Alice, the writer, and her best friend Eileen, as they discuss the inconsequence of creativity and human relationships in a world that is falling apart: “The air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is full of microplastics, and our food is contaminated by cancerous Teflon chemicals.”
That’s what got me.
I read the book on a Kindle, which I hate. Typically, I buy my books used from Thriftbooks or new from Bookshop, which supports independent bookstores — friends don’t let friends buy books from Amazon. (And no, this post isn’t sponsored.) I like to feel a book in my hands, fold down pages for future review, and pass the book onto others.
But I digress. The point is: I found myself using my phone to snap photos of the pages on my Kindle, so I could return to them later. Because there were passages in this book that absolutely floored me. It was like Rooney had reached into my head and pulled out my own thoughts. Such as:
“…every day people died…children, women, and all so that I could choose from various lunch options, each packaged in multiple layers of single-use plastic. That was what they died for — that was the great experiment. I thought I would throw up.”
These are the kinds of ideas that I try to weave into my own creative writing — and which beta readers have repeatedly edited out. Notes in my margins: “Too didactic.” “Feels like a blog.” “Don’t lecture, just tell the story.” Not that I’m comparing myself to Rooney, who was named Young Writer of the Year by The Sunday Times in 2017, whose book, Normal People, was named the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year in 2018, and whose Hulu adaptation of that book was nominated for four Emmy Awards in February and won a BAFTA for actor Paul Mescal in June. My novel is as-yet-unrepresented; Beautiful World has gotten rave reviews from Vogue to The New Yorker to The New York Times.
But much criticism of Beautiful World hones in on its epistolary sections, which explore the futility of environmentalism, among other things, and are what interested me the most. In The Guardian, Rachel Walker said that these sections are the reason the novel “doesn’t deliver on its promise” and calls it a failed “modern morality tale.”
Alice writes: “I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong…Or maybe it was just the end of one civilization, ours, and at some time in the future another will take its place. In that case we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.”
Standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.
Does that not make you weep?
And that’s not all: Through Alice, who questions the importance of writers in general — “they go away and write their sensitive little novels about ‘ordinary life’ [when] the truth is they know nothing about ordinary life…Why don’t they write about…the kind of things that really obsess them?” — Rooney points the finger directly at herself. And then, in a truly meta loop, she answers the call with the very novel in which we are reading these questions.
Clearly for the author — as well as for me and, if you’re reading this, I would guess for you, too — the real question at the heart of everything right now is: What’s the point?
“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 underneath the glittering surface of the text. And we can care once again, as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together — if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything…For this reason I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again.”
But of course, she is: We’re reading it.
Like Alice — and Rooney too, probably, I will always write. It’s how I process the world. But does it matter, in the big picture? Probably not. Maybe. I don’t know.
What do you think? Should artists challenge readers and listeners and viewers to consider that there are bigger things at stake than simple entertainment — or should we just tell the damn story?
Please share in comments below — your response to this question or thoughts on Rooney’s book. Thank you!
Anyone up for a MG book club?