Sally Rooney: ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’








Sally Rooney: ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, 2021, London, Faber & Faber, 337 pages, ISBN 978-0-571-36543-2.

After ‘Conversations with Friends (2017) and ‘Normal People’ (2018), Sally Rooney has risen to the top of the UK’s bestseller list and it’s time to look into her third novel. ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, is a line from a Friedrich Schiller poem of 1788 and also the name of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial literary festival that Rooney attended. It suggests something of her intention. Her native Ireland and what we have come to call the West are irremediably into the 21st-century, but is it so sure the Irish and the rest of us are ready for it? She will try to find out by examining the lives of four thirty-year-olds. (Rooney herself was born in 1991.)


Alice is a young, prosperous and respected novelist who left Dublin to live in New York. After a while, her friends heard nothing from her and It turned out that she suffered a breakdown. In time she returned to Dublin and a stay in hospital. When well enough, she went to live in a country town hours from Dublin. Her spiky personality and her illness made personal relations near-impossible for her. She had to learn growing-up again while attending with less ardor to her career and doubting her worth as well as that of novel writing.


Eileen was and remained Alice’s only friend. Their intense friendship began by sharing an apartment. Unlike Alice, Eileen isn’t alienated from her family. She simply doesn’t agree with it and indulges in sibling skirmishes with her sarcastic sister. Eileen works for an obscure literary magazine and feels her professional and personal life has stalled. Outwardly a strong, independent woman, she lacks confidence and a feeling of self-worth. Rejection by the man she has been living with for several years adds to her misery.


Simon is a childhood friend of Eileen. Brilliant, handsome and proper in every way, he is also a friendly acquaintance of Alice. Being a practicing though discrete Catholic, he doesn’t share the two women’s refusal of religion. But like them, he believes that our world is in a terminal crisis. He is gentlemanly, generous, and helpful to excess but has difficulty expressing his emotions and saying clearly what he wants. He lived some years with a French woman in Paris who finally left him because, she said, it was like living with depression. He works as a consultant on refugee matters although he could hold a better-paid job.


The fourth character scrutinised is Felix. He is from the small town where Alice goes to live. Unlike the trio of Dubliners who belong to the university-educated, lower-middle-class, Felix is working-class and trapped in a mediocre job. He is something of a wild boy, intent on his pleasures. These include drinking, occasional drug-taking, and sex predominately but not exclusively with women. While taking no thought for the future, he sometimes does feel he is on the wrong path. Felix is sharp-minded, independent, and curious. He likes to throw other people’s hypocrisy in their faces.


The story sees  Alice settled into  solitary residence in a big house by the sea. She meets Felix but is still too shaken by illness to have an ordinary relationship. All the same, she invites him to accompany her to Rome at her expense where she has a book promotion. He, slightly hostile, goes along but keeps his distance and doesn’t hide his indifference to high culture and Alice’s novels. She is in no state of mind to object. They do advance their connection with a sexual encounter, Alice’s first for ages. Her thought returns to the bad time she’s been given on social media, She’s in despair that people take her for the celebrity figure their fantasy has made of her.


In Dublin, Eileen stews in her unhappiness. She and Alice exchange long emails about the degradation of the contemporary world, citing Wikipedia, and adding merciless criticism of one another’s life choices. Eileen’s squabbles with her family intensify. She’s lonely and hypercritical about everything, especially herself. A self-Googler, introspection is for her a form of self-sabotage. Her friendship with Simon on occasion peaks to love-making. But he is also involved with other women. His sincere religious beliefs do not include chastity.


Despite the trio’s intimacy, all three shy away from a proposed visit to Alice in her provincial retreat. When it does take place, Felix the outsider’s presence makes him a catalyst for change. He and Alice are now a couple, unstable but functioning. Simon and Eileen also have finally sealed their childhood friendship and are on the point of moving in together. Mixing the bookish visitors into ordinary small-town life mellows the foursome. But Felix will not leave off his awkward prodding.


Hidden animosities surface. Alice insists that Simon has a “martyr’s complex”, is too nice and too detached. Eileen asks why Alice doesn’t stick to her announced intention to stop writing or else fully return to her former active life in Dublin. Simon plays the unbiased, humble arbiter, refusing to make claims for himself. This upsets Eileen and makes her feel it would be better to remain his admiring friend than his full-time partner. She is all too willing to admit she needs him, but it angers her that he doesn’t say the same about her. Faced with Eileen’s decision to pull back, the “emotionally inaccessible” Simon, at last, speaks up and commits himself. Felix, pleased with his handiwork, returns to his crushing job at a local warehouse of the Amazon sort.


Rooney has proceeded by mixing the two women’s long emails with chillier sections of God’s-eye, scene-setting description. This is in fact the way we live now communing with screens large and small while our fingers do a nervous dance.  A not untypical passage:


“Eileen put her phone away and opened a new browser window on her work computer. For a moment she paused, staring at the search engine on the home page, and then quickly and lightly she tapped out the words ‘eileen lydon’ and hit the return key. A page of results showed on-screen, with a set of images displayed at the top. One was a photograph of Eileen herself, sandwiched between two black-and-white historical images. The other results were chiefly social media profiles belonging to other people, along with some obituaries and professional listings. At the bottom of the page, a link to the magazine’s website read: Eileen Lydon/ Editorial Assistant. She clicked the link and a new page opened. […]The final part of the sentence was hyperlinked and Eileen clicked it, leading her to a page on which the magazine issue could be purchased online. She closed the tab then and opened up her work email account. At home that evening, Eileen called her parents’ landline number and her father picked up the phone.”


The surprising thing is that this detailing of electronic device manipulation does not annoy us. Rooney has decided to write a novel with the now-familiar instruments playing a principal role, and she brings it off smoothly enough. The click of telephones signals a surge in the story, dialogues take place at a distance, drama climaxes after frenetic thumb action. It’s a coherent picture and for all its Third Millennium ways, an epistolary novel, a story told by exchange of letters. But epistolary novels of yore didn’t bother much with the postman's footwear or how envelopes were stamped. We tolerate being told still another time how someone reached for a phone in desperation or, crestfallen, locked it and pushed it aside with distaste. But we do ask ourselves why, back a couple of generations, when we had only the radio and telephone party lines, did we not write novels about them? 


While Rooney is intent on showing us how up-to-date her characters are, she also reveals their ties with a past that’s still very much around. The generation gap is underlined. As the story goes forward, a most conventional fully-draped wedding is one of the main stops. And because this is Ireland where the Catholic Church has only recently been confronted in a big way, questions of belief are still asked that elsewhere in the West have become history. Jesus in retreat still hovers.


Sex is never off the minds of the foursome. Given Rooney’s taste for electronics, it’s not surprising that phone sex isn’t forgotten. The description of Eileen and Simon’s or Alice and Felix’s affections on sofa and bed could serve as a feminist and nice-guy recipe on how to copulate. Rooney’s treatment is original, clinical description with a rosy touch. It would be a stretch to call it soft porn. When the hard variety is discovered on Felix’s laptop even he is embarrassed. All four see sexual roles as unfixed and liquid. It’s in tune with Rooney’s idealism, as is Eileen’s correctness politically that remains lofty but very abstract. Alice and Eileen are disappointed progressives that the current world situation has left with nightmares of civilisation—ours—ending. But this seems as much a reflection of their depressive moods than bad news from the media. After the reunion in Alice’s big house in the sticks, their four lives go forward, their perspectives adjusted.


An epilogue, dated eighteen months later, fills us in. The pandemic has arrived. We learn that Felix and Alice are still together in a cloud of homemaking and quibbles. Alice understands that for her life will always be stressful. Eileen is pregnant and after some heart-searching and Simon’s agreement, which he delivers like a committee report, she looks forward to motherhood. She admits that she can’t put the larger world right and feels we have “to content ourselves with trying not to let down our loved ones”. The reader can only scratch his grey head and wonder that for all their acquired electronic know-how and other catching up the Irish have had to do, they are no farther than those characters of E. M. Forster’s novels a century ago who made such a thing of ‘personal relationships’.


Peter Byrne

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