Sally Rooney’s new novel, her third in four years, is a passionate, earnest, vulnerable, often affecting and above all dysfunctional piece of work. It’s at once another instalment in her serial portrait of the bookish, fidgety, sexually avid Irishwoman born circa 1990 and a reckoning of sorts with doubts about Rooney-mania – her own as well as those expressed in what the narrator, describing the reception handed out to the not un-Rooney-like heroine, a superstar novelist named Alice, calls the ‘negative pieces’ produced in reaction to ‘the fawning positivity of the initial coverage’. The subject is raised by various means, in dialogue, narrated backstory and the email correspondence between Alice and her friend Eileen, but emerges most resonantly in the ambition of the book as a whole. From the grandeur of the title to the obtrusiveness of its technique and the more or less equal attention accorded to a pair of couples instead of just one, Beautiful World, Where Are You, though recognisably the work of the same author, marks a self-conscious advance on Conversations with Friends and Normal People. Everything that is cherishable in the book, and everything that is botched and baffling, comes from the ways in which Rooney has pushed herself and risked falling short.
The main charge that Rooney seems to be addressing is that her favoured subject matter is inherently footling, a mere welter of first-world problems. The epigraph to Conversations with Friends, from Frank O’Hara, sought to justify an emphasis on personal relationships: ‘In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.’ Alice seems to think that this sort of thing isn’t quite good enough, or anyway requires elaboration. In one of her closely argued and highly readable emails to Eileen – their exchanges occupy fourteen of the novel’s thirty chapters – she writes that the ‘problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth’. The story of a ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ romance only matters if we put aside all rival concerns, ‘i.e. everything’. She adds, ‘My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard. For this reason I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again.’
Alice’s creator, for her part, has found a way of getting back in the saddle, and the story she tells turns largely upon what Alice calls ‘whether people break up or stay together’. As well as this long-distance platonic relationship, in which, it slowly emerges, lofty talk disguises or suppresses low-level mutual grievances, there’s the developing and faltering bond between Alice, who has moved to an old rectory in rural Ireland after a nervous breakdown, and Felix, a warehouse worker whom she meets via Tinder and impulsively invites to Rome, where she is doing a reading after months of isolation. Meanwhile, the recently heartbroken Eileen, an editorial assistant at a publicly funded magazine in Dublin, is trying to make a go of it with a family friend, Simon, a devout Catholic who works for a left-wing parliamentary pressure group. The sex may be good, but it cannot bridge every gulf between each couple – of wealth and education in the case of Alice and Felix, and of sense of purpose and maybe age (five years) with Eileen and Simon.
Neither of the relationships achieves the propulsive force and Austen-like high stakes of Connell and Marianne’s in Normal People or the squirmy excitement of Frances and Nick’s in Conversations with Friends. For long stretches, the novel, though pitted with Rooney’s brand of local insight, fails to be conventionally engaging. But that seems in part like a strategic sacrifice. It’s as if Rooney has decided to reject what by now she could write in her sleep in favour of something – a novel concerned with ‘i.e. everything’ and also with the challenge of writing such a novel – that few writers could accomplish at full strength.
Another meta-matter that Rooney seems to be confronting is the charge that the air of political commitment in her previous work was merely posturing. ‘We got into a short discussion about the government and the Catholic Church,’ Frances recalls in Conversations with Friends. Here, by contrast, is Alice, a suddenly wealthy Marxist, writing to Eileen:
I’ve been thinking lately about right-wing politics (haven’t we all), and how it is that conservatism (the social force) came to be associated with rapacious market capitalism. The connection is not obvious, at least to me, since markets preserve nothing, but ingest all aspects of an existing social landscape and excrete them, shorn of meaning and memory, as transactions. What could be ‘conservative’ about such a process?
The worry that a small-scale fictional narrative has a tenuous connection with collective struggles, or lacks a larger spiritual vision, is not necessarily dissolved by being addressed. It isn’t just that a spoonful of didacticism might help disguise or offset the sugary taste of a millennial romance plot. Part of the didactic message, as expounded through the device of Alice and Eileen’s emails, is that romance isn’t sugary in the first place – that, as Eileen says, ‘there is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call “breaking up or staying together” (!).’ Writing about personal relationships is fine, Eileen says, because falling in love and worrying about our friends, at the expense of ‘more important things’, is what we’re born to do. And if your novel about personal relationships finds room for extended intellectual debate, then all the better. The idea, likely to cross the reader’s mind, that Simon might have solved the problem raised in the email discourse is brutally shot down. As Alice sees it, he has gone too far in the opposite direction – embracing ‘i.e. everything’ at the expense of putting his feelings on the line. ‘He never needs anything from anyone,’ she tells Felix, ‘and he thinks that makes him a superior being. Whereas in reality he just leads a sad sterile life, sitting alone in his apartment telling himself what a good person he is.’ The equivalent for Rooney would be to write a novel about a famine, or the General Strike, in which absolutely no one falls in love.
As a reading experience, Beautiful World, Where Are You can feel not just miscellaneous but close to contradictory. The openness of the email exchanges, in which ideas and emotions are freely expressed, is starkly at odds with the majority of the narrated passages, in which detail is withheld (‘a taxi app’, ‘a London literary magazine’) and the presentation of the characters is confined to surfaces. We’re told that the effect of a particular conversation on Felix and Alice ‘was impossible to decipher’ and that Felix, attending one of Alice’s readings, could have been either interested or bored. The emphasis is not on how little we know each other or ourselves but on how little the narrator appears to know about the characters, being forced to deduce feelings, motives and even ages from surface indicators, an eccentric approach that Rooney abandons at random intervals (Eileen, we’re informed clearly at one point, is twenty-nine).
The novel’s title comes from a Schiller poem (being unfamiliar with text speak, he included a question mark), but the chief influence on Rooney’s tone – her unabashed seriousness – and narrative method, such as it is, dates from somewhat later. Beautiful World, Where Are You offers with pin-bright clarity an image that was blurred in Rooney’s previous books: the millennial as neo-Victorian (or neo-Edwardian). ‘Have you ever read such a juicy novel??’ Eileen asks Alice, by email, an allusion to The Golden Bowl (1904), Henry James’s portrait of two interlocking couples. You might point out that James’s self-commentary came separately, in his preface to the 1909 edition, not within the pages of the novel itself. But then James was under no obligation to apologise for the parochialism of his own concerns – to justify his taste for the juicy. (His preface was largely a reflection on technique.)
Of course, Rooney is hardly the first writer to dramatise the fear that she is busy fiddling while Rome burns. But she is bolder about it than most novelists, more direct and polemical, more overtly anguished and more willing to encroach on folly. When Virginia Woolf faced a version of the same predicament in the early 1930s, her initial solution was to write what she called a ‘novel-essay’, with passages on the suffrage movement and the Irish question, among other subjects, woven around the story of an invented family, the Pargiters. As things turned out, the experiment broke down and the hyphen fell away, yielding instead a canonical essay (Three Guineas) and a more or less traditional, and bestselling, novel (The Years). Rooney, by contrast, has kept faith with a work that, in its remoteness from its characters, its persistent atmosphere of near-pomposity and its sacrifice of what Alice calls structural integrity, is liable to confound or at least divide her legions of fans – powerful evidence that she has reached the stage where, as Alice writes in an email to Eileen, she would ‘rather be a failure than a success’.