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BooksSeptember 6, 2021

The new Sally Rooney, reviewed


Jordan Margetts, millennial, on the most anticipated release in years: Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. 

My copy of Beautiful World, Where Are You came in the post. It’s sleek, it looks good on my coffee table. We’re used to sleek, our (my) loose generation. It’s the style our lives are lived in. Our flats are empty because we move all of the time. No space for too many books or rugs or dainty knick-knacks picked up while travelling (when you could travel, if you could travel). The money fears and stability terrors make having a real home very hard. Of course this had to end up in our fiction. Of course we’d end up with novels so light and airy and minimal that they might just float away. They’ll take up no room when you pack, weigh nothing when you move. 

Sally Rooney is a big deal. A new Rooney is pretty much as close to the blockbuster as the literary novel gets. Beautiful World, Where Are You is Rooney’s third novel, and the marketing campaign has been relentless (borderline exhausting). Uncorrected proofs are being flogged for hundreds on Ebay (if only I’d known). The New Statesman just ran a think piece headlined “Is the Sally Rooney bucket hat the latest literary status staple?” Waterstones in the UK are even giving away a signed print of the novel’s cover for readers so enthusiastic about a book they haven’t read that they need the evidence up there on the wall. To be fair, it is a nice cover, a nice title, it might look good on the wall. That’s really the point about Sally Rooney, infamously called the “first great millennial novelist”. She’s trendy, she’s a cool look. That look is Millennial Minimalism. 

Photograph of a young woman, pale, serious-looking, partly in shadow
Rooney in 2017, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Photo: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

The basic setup of the novel looks almost identical to her previous two, Conversations with Friends and Normal People. Beautiful World, Where Are You is nominally the story of two couples. Alice is a young ultra-successful but existentially freaked Irish novelist, and Felix is a warehouse packer she meets online while staying in seclusion in a rectory house somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. Eileen makes very little money working for a small literary magazine in Dublin, and her childhood friend and always-almost-sweetheart Simon is successful and liberal and works “for a left-wing parliamentary group”. The novel is in effect the slow story of these two couples. The animating tension is supposed to be between the theoretically mundane realities of love and life on the one hand, and the scary moral universe raging outside on the other. The storm at the door is communicated through a series of emails between the two protagonists. These make up half the novel’s length and alternate with third-person storytelling. First Alice and then Eileen every second chapter, a pattern rigorously adhered to right up to the last few when the novel devolves into the purely epistolary. 

Emails and love affairs and sex scenes and intense female friendship are what we expect from Rooney. The third novel seems to be a sort of test-case, we suspect we’ll be able to discern the ongoing pattern of her career from whether she stays true to the formula of her first two novels. Intensely plotted and verbally featureless books, with fairly high-seeming stakes and a frustrating “first as tragedy then as farce” ending, that makes some kind of point about eternal recurrence in relationships and ever-shifting power games. What Rooney does with this novel is attempt to revise or alter her established patterns. The material remains the same, but the outcomes are different. The external world is all the bleaker and the internal world seems less cartoonishly repetitive – which is to say I think this novel has perhaps the best or at least, most realised ending of any of Rooney’s novels. 

But in the attempt to learn new tricks and go in new directions, Rooney highlights the fundamental flaw in her own writing: it isn’t very good. There are two areas Rooney seems to be stretching herself in: emails and technology. The emails function as a kind of intellectual ballast, an attempt to transpose these basically realist and basically privileged typically white-and-anxious millennial stories into a kind of novel of ideas. And this novel is full of ideas. Alice and Eileen hypothesise and postulate, they lecture and sermonise and soliloquise and wax lyrical. They muse on the environment and on society and on how apparently ugly everything is. They’re supposed to be startlingly clever as well as startlingly depressed. Rooney has used emails before, but chiefly as plot devices. Here they’re lengthy missives that remind you that Rooney was a champion debater, and like all good debaters she says very little inside of a structure designed to seem rigorous and clever. These long emails are intolerable interludes that murder the propulsive sense of plot that made her previous novels so easy to read. Take Eileen’s musing on identity politics:

Everyone is at once hysterically attached to particular identity categories and completely unwilling to articulate what purposes they serve. The only apparent schema is that for every victim group (people born into poor families, women, people of colour) there is an oppressor group (people born into rich families, men, white people). But in this framework, relations between victim and oppressor are not historical so much as theological, in that the victims are transcendently good and the oppressors are personally evil.

This email goes on and on from there. It isn’t that this is necessarily a terrible or stupid point, although I would note that complaining about “victim Olympics” is hardly an original insight. It’s the sort of thing you argue about at the pub. But like almost anything you argue about at the pub it probably shouldn’t be written down, chiefly because it’s boring to read. It isn’t only identity politics that gets the essay-treatment: the Bronze-Age collapse (complicated), poverty (bad), inequality (also bad), the literary publicity industry (vampiric), the nature of everything (which is meaningless), and especially beauty (gone). They keep telling us that things are ugly and bland, they complain about cosmetics and architecture and music and movies. They’re always boasting about their experiences in galleries, and we’re treated to theories like this:

Anyway, I have a new theory. Would you like to hear it? Ignore this paragraph if not. My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence. (Eileen to Alice)


I think you’re wrong about the instinct for beauty. I’m not going to get into another argument with you about the Soviet Union, but when it died so did history. I think of the twentieth century as one long question and in the end we got the answer wrong. Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? (Alice to Eileen) 

The epistolary half of the novel is dominated by theories, by endless op-eds. They all have that shine you see in self-consciously clever and hyper articulate teenagers, who are convinced they need only keep talking to eventually persuade you they know much more than they do. Far from making one feel keenly the context of the world, a world in which the stakes are very high, and a bird’s eye view would probably make you cry, the emails are simply boring and frustrating. Rooney may be searching for the “real” but all she really does is make reality bland. 

A grey day, tussocky field, a boy and a girl sit close, she resting her head on his shoulder. Both pale and beautiful.
The 2020 film adaptation of Normal People (Photo: TVNZ)

Such overriding blandness is especially ironic in a novel that’s apparently concerned with the paradigmatic ugliness of our modern world. The prose is as synthetic, as uninteresting, as featureless and commercial as the world Alice and Eileen claim they are living in. Unfortunately, this blandness is not restricted to the emails. Rooney is reaching harder than ever to mimetically describe the reality of her generation. She’s recognised a phenomenon in contemporary fiction: the internet often doesn’t get enough say. In a world defined in all its particulars by the experience of the screen, by the isolation-connection dynamic that defines our world, novels have seemed to take a while to catch up. It isn’t that contemporary novelists ignore the internet (Charlotte Grimshaw’s wonderful Mazarine in part concerns the paranoid anxieties of web-based communication, for example), but they don’t seem to realise, or perhaps want to ignore, that our lived reality involves clinging to phones like extensions of ourselves. Part pacifier, part prayer book – which I suppose they are. 

Rooney’s solution is to fill her novel with self-consciously “realistic” habits and descriptions of tech-habits: “She sat on her bed, opened a map on her phone and moved her fingers with practised ease around the screen.” The problem with this approach isn’t only that it’s not very interesting (after the tenth mention of phone use, or maps-scrolling, we rather get the point) it’s that the language isn’t right. This is perhaps a bit pedantic of me, but I really don’t think we “move fingers around the screen”, not actively, it isn’t done with “ease” because it isn’t done with anything. It’s sheer habit, non-intentional and hovering between conscious and unconscious, borderline biological, more akin to picking your nose than reading a book. 

In Rooney’s short story for the Irish Times “Mr Salary”, the protagonist-narrator describes her imperviousness to her manipulative father. She says, “I wasn’t vulnerable to them. Emotionally, I saw myself as a smooth, hard little ball. He couldn’t get purchase on me. I just rolled away.” A rare metaphor from Rooney and one that I think effectively captures her prose, or rather the effect of reading her prose. Nothing sticks to it because it has no texture. The abiding strategy of a Rooney novel is to construct vessels filled with air, dressed with just enough detail that you don’t recognise that all you’re doing is projecting – not only yourself into the characters, but the details and textures of life into the open-sets left dangling for you to fill in. Much of the prose is better called a “prompt” than a “description” in any traditionally literary sense: 

They went out to museums together in the afternoons, and talked about art and politics.

… one day she made a witty remark at dinner. 

… people talked to her about the property market. 

The streets of Rome revealed themselves one by one and vanished …

… a tote bag printed with the logo of a London literary magazine.

The prose itself is best described in the affectless diction of the consumer report: sleek, efficient, inexpensive, easy-to-use. And so another Rooney novel has shown up and is about to slip away, sliding by, like a notification read late, like an invite on a Facebook event. Hit maybe and ignore. Less an object than an action, a brief one, one you forget right away. A flash and a ding and a blue-light screen, and then receding into nothingness. Alice at one point diagnoses the “problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel”:

… it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the “main characters” of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or artistically unsuccessful. Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, where it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter? So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world – packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text.

My response when habitually exposed to in-text op-eds is to argue with them, to point out the factual errors. But it isn’t this bleak worldview that’s the problem, not really. Rooney is hardly the first novelist to feel pessimistic about either the world or the state of the novel, hardly the first to feel the centre isn’t holding. But it seems to me this belief infects the writing. It might be in Alice’s voice, but this book could only be written by an author who has lost faith in the art and beauty of the novel. Who thinks a “glittering surface” is something to sneer at, a pointless luxury. Instead we have a novel chiefly about the wealthy, or at least the wealthy adjacent (if not a book deal then a boyfriend will bring money in the end), which spends half its length clutching its pearls and dismissing its own form. Whether or not Rooney is right about the state of the world, you feel that in her attempts to grow as a novelist she’s lost sight of the art. In a novel in part about beauty she’s made something very ugly. There is some attempt to restore hope as the novel winds down, but at least to my ear it did not work. It was too late, too dull, too hopeless. 

Full screen shot showing the painting Unsteady World, by Hiroshi Nagai, as wallpaper
Unsteady World, by Hiroshi Nagai, as millennial wallpaper (Image: Supplied)

The best sentence of the novel is the title – Beautiful World, Where Are You – which omits the question mark. Slacked of grammar it isn’t so much a formal speech act as a mention, not a question but a statement. For all its musing on beauty and all the feints at reality, this book, really, contains neither. A kind of adolescent pessimism so incessant that it’s almost enough to make you optimistic. My computer background is a picture by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Nagai. It depicts what looks like a surf supply-shop before a flat beach, and a featureless sea stretching dark and meeting a low horizon (think old school David Hockney, or BoJack Horseman). It’s probably set in LA, with its beaches and palm-trees and the American car to the right. But it reminds me of Auckland. That high Pacific sky, those wide roads. The surf-shop sign reads: “Welcome to Unsteady World”. I find those words haunting, they echo in my mind, and in a world of pestilential terror and political upheaval and (Rooney isn’t wrong) oncoming ecological collapse, it’s very easy to forget that the world is also beautiful – it’s just unsteady, and always has been. Good novels, no matter how political or how angry or how tragic, help remind us of the beauty in the unsteadiness, that amongst all the turmoil there are specific, beautiful details. That world hasn’t gone anywhere, Rooney just can’t see it. 

If Rooney is “our” novelist, if she’s the millennial voice, then we’re as empty as we feel on our worst days. If Rooney has an insight, I think it lies in how easily the books can go down. How willing we are as readers – as shoppers – to accept an impoverished vision of a world connected only by the very materialistic or the very structural. Where individuals are subsumed by power and where everybody, really, is a kind of writer, and writers are boring, benumbed of language, hollow things. If Rooney is a mirror, then our reflection is horribly emaciated. I think or at least I hope that we deserve better. 

Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney (Faber, $45 hardback, $32.99 paperback) releases worldwide tomorrow, September 7. You can pre-order here from Unity Books Wellington. You can also pre-order via the Auckland store, but please note it won’t be processing orders until Level Three. 

For more on the new Rooney novel, including stock numbers and sales expectations, see our July story Rooney Incoming

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