Around the hundred-page mark of Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, the novelist protagonist Alice Kelleher delivers an indictment of her own profession. Novelists are vain, she writes to her friend Eileen Lydon, a magazine editor in Dublin. Their work is dishonest, deliberately “suppressing the truth of the world—packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text.” Divorced from the real world, the novel has forfeited its claim to representational legitimacy. “Do the protagonists break up or stay together?” she writes dismissively. “In this world, what does it matter?” If Alice’s takedown of contemporary fiction serves as a thesis of sorts for the Irish author’s self-reflexive third novel, it also demonstrates the book’s twofold nature. At one level, Beautiful World, Where Are You is about a writer, cast rather conspicuously in the mold of Rooney herself, navigating the fallout of a personal crisis. But at another, more compelling level, it works as an extended dialogue between Alice and Eileen, who communicate through email for much of the novel’s duration. Their correspondences form the book’s intellectual backbone, invigorating Rooney’s prose with a sharp critical edge.
The novel opens during a period of estrangement between Alice and Eileen. Alice is living in an oceanside town, taking a kind of sabbatical while she recovers from a nervous breakdown. She meets Felix, a local who works picking orders at a nearby warehouse, on an online dating app. Meanwhile, in Dublin, Eileen is coming to terms with a breakup by rekindling things with Simon, her childhood crush and a reliable hookup. Rooney alternates storytelling duties between her omniscient narrator, Alice’s email voice, and Eileen’s email voice, trading perspectives from chapter to chapter. The novel preserves a measure of distance between Rooney’s characters, giving the reader time to study them in isolation until a trip to the beach erupts into a painful confrontation. It’s a clever tactic for a novel interested in its own internal contradictions. I found myself treating it like a game, searching for thematic overlaps, omissions, and inconsistencies in their stories.
In her first email, Alice writes Eileen about an epiphany she experiences while shopping for prepackaged foods in a convenience store. Surveying the single-use plastics that keep sandwiches fresh and sodas carbonated, she writes: “It was as if I suddenly remembered that my life was all part of a television show—and every day people died making the show, were ground to death in the most horrific ways […] all so that I could choose from various lunch options.” The commodities adorning store shelves are not worthless pieces of consumerist gimcrack, she realizes, but the residue of countless hours of invisible toil.
Later, Rooney’s omniscient narrator resumes this line of thinking, reporting simultaneous scenes from Alice and Felix’s daily lives. The effect is cinematic, intercutting between the two to show the labor elided by the marketplace. Alice takes a phone call from her agent while Felix mechanically navigates the warehouse where he works, scanning items and moving them from shelves to carts. Alice composes an email. Felix warms his freezing hands with his breath.
Rooney puts her novelist-critic’s blind spot on full display in this passage. Alice has a faint impression of the labor required to move objects from warehouses to store shelves; for Felix, this work is a cornerstone of his daily experience. What sort of real, lived life does Alice’s critique of contemporary fiction have in mind if not the one right in front of her?
The novelist-critic dialectic isn’t new to Rooney’s work, but the critique she articulates in Beautiful World feels more methodical than in her earlier novels. Marianne and Connell from Normal People may be exceptional critical thinkers, but mostly because they need to be for the story to work. Here, Rooney’s characters are humbled, more self-assured in their opinions but even less certain of their places in the world.
Rooney’s insistence on unifying contradictions, moreover, points toward a larger project at the center of her fiction. “I’m not going to be able to explain this the right way,” Felix tells Alice after they have sex that night, “but the difference between what we’re doing right now and what I do all day, I actually can’t describe. It’s hard to believe I have to use the same body for both things.” Felix’s work subjugates his physical embodiment to the mechanized labor of shipping logistics. Alice, by contrast, works from her kitchen, picking out words on a laptop. By jamming these perspectives together in a single paragraph, Rooney attempts to reconcile the conventions of literary realism with the political economy of a capitalist world-system other novelists keep tucked neatly behind the scenes. The realist illusion that hides the truth of the world from the reader, she pointedly demonstrates, is another instantiation of the illusion of convenience and ease that conceals the labor of faraway workers.
If Beautiful World is satisfying at the level of narrative—that novelistic plane where characters get together and break up and get back together again—in the end, I can’t help but find its critique truncated, cut off too soon. “What if the meaning of life on earth is not eternal progress toward some unspecified goal—the engineering and production of more and more powerful technologies, the development of more and more complex and abstruse cultural forms?” Eileen posits in one of her emails. “What if these things just rise and recede naturally, like tides, while the meaning of life remains the same always—just to live and be with other people?” Eileen’s hypotheticals express a reluctant futility to which Beautiful World, Where Are You finally surrenders itself.
It may be that Rooney has met the limit of her abilities at this point in her career. It may also be that she’s met the limit of her form. Realism is no longer real, she tells us. But as the prevailing mode of literary production, it also lacks the political means to shatter its own illusion. This is to say that the conventions of the novel, congealing alongside the middle class at a time when the laboring masses were denied any sort of aesthetic experience, may well be designed to capture and accommodate unorthodox political thought—to drain it, in effect, of its critical powers. Even so, Rooney’s gesture toward radical transparency raises a tantalizing prospect for left-wing fiction writers who seek a broad readership. There may yet be hope for novelists who wish to break the grip that market logic holds on the real.
by Sally Rooney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published on September 07, 2021