Home News Sally Rooney’s Novel of Letters Puts a Fresh Spin on Familiar Questions

Sally Rooney’s Novel of Letters Puts a Fresh Spin on Familiar Questions


There is an argument to be made that “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is the kind of plotless un-novel we’re growing accustomed to. The characters banter about the uselessness of modern structures and our lack of faith in overriding narrative. While the techniques of modernism and postmodernism have been borrowed, assembled and arranged like items selected from an Ikea catalog, the contemporary un-novel has none of modernism’s or postmodernism’s desperate crisis of faith. That is, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is carefully formless and its characters are fluent in our lingua franca of systemic collapse, that neoliberal patter of learned helplessness in the face of larger capital and labor systems.

Alice summarizes it neatly when she says of contemporary novelists: “Why do they pretend to be obsessed with death and grief and fascism — when really they’re obsessed with whether their latest book will be reviewed in The New York Times?” I laughed at this line, and underlined it. I wrote “too true bestie in the margins. Later, she says, “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. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the ‘main characters’ of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful.”

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There are a couple moments when Rooney narrates what is happening to Felix as he works in the warehouse while simultaneously narrating Alice going about her quiet, writerly work. Such a juxtaposition is striking. There is, of course, a bit of implied humor, but you laugh because it reveals the ridiculousness of class stratification and the hierarchies of labor. And Rooney knows this. Or seems to know it. Because, like all the narrative sections of the novel, these moments are presented sans commentary. It’s kind of a vibey omniscience that proceeds by way of spare descriptions. Rooney writes scenes as though she had to type them out on a TI-89. Nouns and verbs. This can be lovely, as when she describes empty rooms or the touch of someone’s hand on a wrist. Her writing about sex is taut and direct. It’s a narrative style I associate with the films of Andrew Haigh and Joanna Hogg, two great visual poets of social anxiety and reticence.

Rooney’s dialogue is frequently perfect, so perfect that it occasionally turns into a flaw. That is, Rooney’s characters speak as though they’re in a ’90s rom-com or else the adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Consider this exchange between Eileen and Simon:

“Your girlfriends are never middle-aged.”

“And neither am I, quite yet, thank you.”

The argot is pleasurable in the way all great dialogue is pleasurable — take another great barb from Eileen, texted to Simon: “Why do men over 30 text like they’re updating a LinkedIn profile?” — but at times it feels like a hammy line reading. Much like their compatriots — narrators from novels by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Andrew Martin — Rooney’s characters chatter about the pointlessness of feeling that the world is too far gone to do anything about even as they seem to agree that our problems tower high above our heads.

In my less charitable moments, it felt as though we’ve reached a point in our culture where the pinnacle of moral rigor in the novel form is an overwhelmed white woman in a major urban center sighing and having a thought about the warming planet or the existence of refugees. This brought to mind a recent spate of novels about white women’s existential malaise in the face of social ills — “Want,” by Lynn Steger Strong; “Drifts,” by Kate Zambreno; “Weather,” by Jenny Offill. There’s an aesthetic gesture cohering with each publication cycle that one need only evoke the tableaux of feeling overwhelmed — via modular narrative, fragments, a loose lyrical style, modernist pyrotechnics or the vaporous disembodied narrator — and move on by describing, I guess, grass growing as a protest. Characters acknowledging their privilege and access to capital has somehow come to be seen as actual class critique in one’s art.

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