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Sally Rooney reluctantly creates a ‘Beautiful World’ on the brink of collapse

Over three years after critically acclaimed ‘Normal People,’ Rooney’s third novel was released on Sept. 7

“‘What are your books about?’” Felix asks Alice, a novelist and one of the two female protagonists in Sally Rooney’s newest novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You.”

“‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘People.’”

A more accurate description of Rooney’s own writing is difficult to conceive — anything less vague would be an insufficient account of her work. Alice meets Felix on a dating app and invites him to Rome with her. While she navigates her relationships, comes to terms with her authorial fame and deals with her mental health, she periodically exchanges long emails with her best friend, Eileen. In Dublin, Eileen slips into a relationship with her childhood friend, Simon. But none of these narrative elements substantially describe the novel. It is about the rise and fall of civilizations, the vicious cycles of production and decay, the beginnings and endings of relationships — it is, in other words, about “people.”

Sally Rooney reinvented the novel of manners for the digital era with “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People;” and with the same stripped-down precision characteristic of those novels, she brings a new dimension of consciousness to “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” While she stays close to the characters’ immediate experiences as in her previous works, in this novel, Rooney periodically takes a step back from her intimate storytelling to contemplate an interaction from the exterior: “Perhaps they didn’t know themselves, and these were questions without fixed answers, and the work of making meaning was still going on,” she writes.

Formally, “Beautiful World” is the most ambitious of Rooney’s works — part detached observation, part intimate third-person narrative, part epistolary, the novel seamlessly transitions between distances and perspectives. Famously acclaimed for her ability to capture the subtleties of relationships as shaped by digital technology, Rooney takes her observational proficiency further with the new distance in this novel: “Nothing changed in her outward relationship to the world that would allow an observer to determine what she felt about what she saw. Then, after some length of time, with no apparent trigger, she closed the bathroom window and reopened the text editor.” 

Her position as an observer highlights how bizarre our absorption in the virtual world seems to an outside presence, as if the digital world has restructured our patterns of reason and perception so they no longer coincide with those at play in the “real” world. On the other hand, when she closes this distance by adopting the first-person perspective in the emails Alice and Eileen exchange, Rooney creates a direct pathway of discourse that at once works within and transcends the narrative. For those who have read her other two novels, it is not difficult to believe that her hyper-intelligent characters naturally communicate in profound paragraphs, but it is in these exchanges that the reader begins to sense Rooney’s voice in the characters she writes.

This is most keenly felt through Alice’s disdain for her fame and profession: “I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things—having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself.” While her criticism of fame is unironic, the absurdity of Alice’s complaints is not lost on Rooney — throughout the novel she attempts to come to terms with the privilege of producing art as “work.” And if her criticisms of the contemporary novel as inherently irrelevant or even trivial seem hypocritical, she already knows that too: “My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard.”

In spite of this self-awareness, however, the contemplation of the novel and the writer is the least successful part of this novel at least in terms of originality and refinement, becoming over-compensatory at times and defensive at others. Rooney’s unresolved personal crisis with her authorship seeps through these moments, set against the backdrop of the larger unresolved crisis of a spiritually and environmentally decaying world. And this is where both Rooney and her characters are at their strongest: conversations that become an art form. While political discourse is not new to Rooney, in this novel she goes beyond her first two in insight and description. Although “Conversations with Friends” ambiguously touched upon the concept of religion and spirituality, here there is an ongoing discussion about how it influences the way the characters relate to the world, some finding value in faith even as the liberal spheres they work within largely reject religion. A less equipped writer than Rooney might have lacked the prowess to navigate this unanswered spiritual question authentically, but in her hands the exploration of faith is refreshing. She also addresses climate change with an unparalleled sincerity, seamlessly bringing to the forefront of her dialogue the existential questions of our planet and the extent to which we have normalized destruction.

But as always, Sally Rooney’s true genius lies in her simplicity. Her stripped-down observations of seemingly unidentifiable mannerisms, subtle dynamics in her characters’ relationships. She presents relationships and conversations, decisions and flaws, nimbly and without unnecessary linguistic embellishment. Amid several novels defaulting to caricatures instead of characters, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” lies among the very, very few that transcend the character and successfully capture the person.


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