Sally Rooney’s search for a beautiful world

Essay

In recent literary history, no other book has been this hyped in the media as Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? Even before coming out, the book was turned into a thing that has to be anticipated, critiqued, and heavily advertised. One has to wonder what that does to a work of fiction, and its author. 

Sally Rooney became not only the generator of discourse but the discourse itself. Sometimes vitriol remarks and often over the top commendation on the books made her into a literary poster girl for the millennials. Vitriol remarks that declared her writing not worthy of a serious read and seemed almost angry at her success. Over the top commendation on the other hand announced she is the Jane Austen of today or Salinger for the Snapchat generation. It seems to be the thing that is part of the pop culture, find a catchy alliteration and make it a slogan, and I have to say I really hate it. 

I know hate is such a strong word. And I know that also would be attributed to me being a ‘millennial.’ That I have such strong reactions to things, not unlike Sally Rooney. But whenever in history people had such mellow opinions that our generation is standing in such a stark difference? 

But I rest that for now, instead let us get to know our women and men of Beautiful World.
The book revolves around the two protagonists, Alice and Eileen, who are both on the cusp of 30. Alice, a writer, is torn between her sense of self and the newfound fame and money that poses to be self-effacing. Eileen, an underachiever by all measure, works in a literary magazine and barely gets by with the little money she makes. It is safe to say that they are more and less successful versions of Sally Rooney herself. 

Then there are Simon and Felix. Felix does manual shift work in a distribution warehouse. The book starts with Alice meeting Felix on a Tinder date. Our valiant Simon is an advisor for a left-wing parliamentary group and puzzling everybody, is a practising Catholic. Eileen knows Simon from her childhood and has pretty much been in love with him ever since, is the feeling reciprocated or not gets muddled very often. The two men function in the story by being the love interests of Eileen and Alice. Other than that, their stories are never fully disclosed. There are snippets of their personal lives, but it never evolves into a full picture. 

The structure of the book shifts from chapter to emails and chapter again. Third-person chapters are followed by first-person emails. The back-and-forth emails go between Alice and Eileen, who more than halfway through the book don’t physically get together. It is important to note that in the emails they are vulnerable without being submissive, wherein the narrative parts, in their romantic relationships, they often are alarmingly submissive and just that. 

In the chapters, the narration feels simultaneously faraway and voyeuristic. Faraway because of the monotonous way of not even describing but just telling what is happening. Voyeuristic because it gets so intensely intimate in moments, reading feels like an intrusion. Rooney’s magic lies in these scenes, where she makes the reader so acutely aware of the intimacy on the pages that it almost makes sense to leave them alone. What places me in unease though, is that the union of a dominant man and a submissive woman seems to fascinate Rooney. 

In that regard some of the things remain same as her first two novels. All three books are about Trinity-educated millennials who are insecure and intelligent, living in post-crisis Ireland. 

Now it would be unnatural to ask Rooney to answer the many existential questions of our time, of our generation, that she poses in the book. And I am not interested in that, I don’t read books to find answers, especially not explicit ones. 

I am interested in however about how a self-described Marxist novelist feels seeing her book sitting alongside perfumes and Anthropologie candle in GQ’s “Best Valentine’s Day gifts for her that are guaranteed to impress’’ guide. This obscene amount of interest in Rooney, this incessant noise surrounding her success, I find bleak in a way. So, when she introduces a character who is also an overnight success of an author, it’s hard to see it in any other light but a celebrity author fighting her own brand. 

And yet for Beautiful World, Waterstones publication opened pop-up shops to accommodate the long queues. Normal People was longlisted for the Booker Prize and has been adapted into a glamorous television show. Conversation with Friends is also set to come out as a TV show. I’m sure Beautiful World will too. And by some, Rooney has been oriented with cult status. 

When some critics say that her novels are radical, which I find they are not, I wondered for a minute whether to trust my reader instinct or to go with the favourable tide. I find it dismal the process of making a book something which it clearly is not. I understand that in this day and age it is really hard to outrun the public gaze. So, the author and the fiction are that much easier to homogenize. 

And it is after all just my opinion, my feelings regarding the book. But I find just being attentive to social class shouldn’t be that radical. Rooney’s characters are more about their emotions than their ideas. It is not the way she writes about class that makes her stories appealing. It is the way she writes about desires and intimacy. 

“The novel works by suppressing the truth of the world,” Alice suggests that one point in the novel. After listening to her many interviews, I get that Rooney seems to agree with the statement as well. With which I vehemently disagree. I find because it is fiction and not straightforward news or human rights reports, the possibility of getting the nuance of existence in a particular place and time becomes that much more vivid. 

If I think about Arundhati Roy’s first book The God of Small Things, on the page it is primarily just a story about two kids. The rest of the things, the class-caste inequality, patriarchy, corrupt political system, highbrow liberal naivety, she doesn’t have to spell out any of it. It’s just there. 

I get where Sally Rooney is coming from, and in this broken world, with all our social media platforms desolating our sense of selves, I get the search for beautiful world and ultimately finding it in the intimacy of love. I know these intellectually confident and emotionally insecure people, I have been them in my life at some point or the other. 

But without making the bold claims, there are subtler conversations to be had. And I don’t care for sayings like anyone who is optimistic isn’t paying attention. That kind of pessimism doesn’t do anything, it sits on its own fuel and burns the vessel. 

That’s why I bring up Arundhati Roy. I prefer to be sad and depressed in her way. When each day can feel like a lost cause, when it’s not easy to be civilized in the face of those who have given up on being civil, I choose to be sad in her way. Where in hindsight one always knows that no matter how unbearable it feels the dejection of seeing the world burning, nothing compares to the actual grief of the people who are burning with it.
Where even after it feels like all hope is gone, like Camus I want to say, “I don’t believe, I choose to believe.”

So clearly, I subscribe to the idea that the personal is political. I believe it shows up in how one loves and wants to be loved in return. And it is not fair to judge Rooney with my context from sitting where I am sitting. It can be argued that it is unfair to bring Roy when discussing Rooney. When in the case of writing fiction, their respective subject matters are world afar. And no wonder I relate to Roy more, she’s that much closer to my home. But it is not just about what one writes, but how one writes it. It is about temperament. 

It should also be noted that this year came out books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, Damon Galgut’s The Promise, Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This. In no way I am saying that one has to choose a lane, and if one talks about Rooney’s book they can’t talk about these books. I am, however, saying this cultural moment we are living needs to be introspected as to why an unnerving amount of obsession is poured over a particular author. Who is young, white, and well-off. 

I really don’t like swiping general comments. Sally Rooney is not the author for the millennials, she is just an author, writing what she wants to write. And when the majority of the western literary magazines say things like that, who are they referring to? What millennials exactly are they talking about? It is safe to say I think, they are talking about millennials who look like Rooney.

No matter how much or how little I relate to the characters she creates, I know from where I stand the stakes are much higher. Here we are so muzzled that we can go insane sometimes. From the roads we cross to the classes we take to the homes we love, the disparity we face spreads like a stench. That stench clings to you. 

Again, what millennials are we talking about? Even in my country, I’m sure somebody from an elite wealthy family would find more common ground with Alice and Eileen than with me. On the other hand, even in Ireland, I’m sure there are women of our age group, if we assume that is the one thing connecting us, who would find even littler commonality with Alice and Eileen. 

I loved many things in Beautiful World, I loved lines like “death is just the apocalypse in the first person.” Once Alice quotes a sentence of Proust’s suggesting the existence of a single intelligence in the world, which everyone looks at from their own body, the way members of an audience look at a single stage from many different seats. I loved that. But again, I can’t help but point out that where that seat is, and who gets to sit where, makes all the difference. 

So, I am writing this in a new home that I’ve just moved into. Unopened boxes of books are laying beside, all the writers whom I love are in my arms reach. And I cautiously place Sally Rooney with them, and I choose to leave all the other noise behind. I appreciate her as she is, I appreciate her showing our time, where we are intelligent and miserable, and are dealing with dissociation caused by anxiety. Though I don’t particularly like her way of showing troubling situations that to a large extent get resolved by romantic partnerships, but I feel that primal urge to love and to be loved. I appreciate her taking a stand with the Palestanian people and saying no to a publication house in the matter of translating her book into Hebrew. And I am curiously content in wait, to see what story she brings up next. 


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