Sally Rooney, “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” (2021) (read by Aoife McMahon) – What does Sally Rooney, the great hope of Millennial letters, have for us this time? Well, once again, a story of two contemporary young Irish people having a mostly bad time. And once again, it’s pretty good. Does it live up to the hype (that Rooney makes plain in this book she wishes she didn’t have surrounding her)? Who’s to say?
As people have pointed out, this one is a little more directly autobiographical, as one of the two main characters, Alice, is a successful novelist, with many identifiers connecting her to Rooney herself. There’s also been speculation on some critics’ part that making Alice so baldly similar to herself was Rooney’s way of maliciously complying with critics who insist most of her female leads are self-portraits. The other main character, Eileen, is not a successful novelist, but toils away at a Dublin literary magazine. They write each other long emails about all kinds of stuff. I used to do similar email chains with people! Maybe, some day, again.
They both have men in their lives, and the men and their reactions to them and the men’s reactions to their reactions cause a lot of grief. Alice moves to the countryside after a nervous breakdown and starts hanging out with Felix, a working class guy. Eileen, for her part, is just one lover to Simon, a childhood friend who is very attractive and has lots of lovers, but both clearly want something more but various things keep them from getting it.
I gotta hand it to Rooney- she really does nail a lot of the neuroticism, here defined as psychological inability to get what one wants, that defines a lot of millennial life, among really verbal people. Felix isn’t as formally educated as the other three but he’s smart and online a lot, so approaches things in somewhat similar ways. All of them somehow manage to think themselves into misery and inability to reach for things, mostly meaningful, honest contact with others. Alice and Felix circle each other like new cats, each convinced the one looks down on the other (and like cats, both are right). Eileen invests tremendous meaning into her relationship with Simon, to such an extent she scares herself into acting indifferent, which then “let’s” Simon go date much younger beautiful women, despite the fact it doesn’t make him happy and a real relationship to someone who knows him well might. What a set of predicaments! They’re not the most exciting or original emplotments in the world. But there is a reality to them I recognize in the people I know, complete with self-aware self-hatred of these predicaments, and how it doesn’t help). Like a lot of stuff I both read and encounter in the emotional life of my age group, there’s a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God (well, really, medicine and “finding my people” early and holding on to them)-go-I quality. It’s tough out there.
Rooney arranges some decent set-pieces- bad parties, bad parties where some good stuff happens, travel. There’s some good will they or won’t they. It’s less will they or won’t they bang — they all have sex, that part is understood — but will they or won’t they make an actual effort to be with someone who makes them happy? For a little while, I was wondering if Felix was a hustler, looking to get money out of Alice, maybe Rooney being a little self-consciously outrageous by summoning up the shade of the class-inappropriate lover. But no, nothing like that. The book was sufficiently interesting and well-written, in a spare and matter-of-fact sort of way, that I wasn’t disappointed that Rooney missed the turn-off into Crime Fiction Land.
Alice and Eileen email back and forth about the Bronze Age Collapse, and how it resembles our times, and how irresponsible it is for them — and for culture — to obsess over individual feelings and relationships when the world is at stake. One of them reads something other than the Wikipedia article on said collapse, and finds that a lot of people in the Eastern Mediterranean probably barely knew it when the palaces who took some taxes from them collapsed, or were occupied by new Sea People or whatever. They went on living their lives. The four protagonists more or less figure their shit out. She doesn’t come out and say it, but each relationship has one person with a lot of money (Simon comes from money), so, that helps with the whole moving-on-in-life thing. Anyway! This book was pretty decent. I don’t think Rooney has to save literature, or be the great leftie millennial writer. She can just keep doing what she’s doing as far as this rando is concerned. ****’