Book review: Sally Rooney asks, Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You was so highly anticipated that advance copies were selling for US$200 on eBay. PHOTOS: FABER, NYTIMES

Beautiful World, Where Are You

By Sally Rooney
Fiction/Faber/Paperback/340 pages/$28.89/Available here from Sept 7
4 out of 5

Beautiful world, where are you? It is a question many will have asked in some form or other during this pandemic, though in fact it is a line from a 1788 German poem by Friedrich Schiller and has clearly consumed Irish novelist Sally Rooney long before Covid-19 struck.

Rooney, already feted for her debut Conversations With Friends (2017, available here), shot to astronomical acclaim for Normal People (2018, available here), which was longlisted for the Booker Prize and adapted into an Emmy-nominated drama.

As a result, she has become something like the literary patron saint of millennial crisis. This novel, her third, was so highly anticipated that advance copies were selling for around US$200 (S$270) on eBay, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The pressures of that anticipation seem to have been absorbed by the novel, which thrums with existential anxiety and constantly queries itself. Why, it asks, do books such as this exist, especially in a world on the verge of collapse?

There are four key characters, all millennials. Two, Alice and Eileen, best friends since college, are confronting being on the cusp of 30.

Alice, who became an incredibly famous novelist in her mid-20s, has secluded herself in small-town Ireland after a nervous breakdown. She starts dating Felix, a warehouse worker whom she met on Tinder and who has never read any of her books.

Eileen, once an academic prodigy, works for a pittance at a Dublin literary magazine, where she does tasks like standardise the spelling of "WH Auden" to "W.H. Auden".

Having been through a bad breakup, she is grappling with her "will-they-won't-they" relationship with her childhood friend Simon, a political adviser.

This is basically a novel about people getting together and breaking up, of the variety Alice herself despises.

"Who can care," she argues, "what happens to the novel's protagonists, when it's happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species?"

Her own work, she adds wryly, is the "worst culprit in this regard".

Readers are likely to identify Alice with her creator Rooney, who has pre-empted this. "What do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity?" she has Alice lament.

And indeed there is a certain voyeuristic aspect to the narrative, which for the most part follows the characters around like a film camera, reporting the minute details of their movements and interactions while granting no access to their inner thoughts.

What the reader does glean is through their phone calls and messages, the checking of social media and - most revelatory of all - the online correspondence between Alice and Eileen.

In wide-ranging, intellectual e-mails, they debate everything from the climate crisis to the late Bronze Age. They expatiate, rant and check each other's privileges. It evokes the endangered art of letter writing, and is an illuminating epistolary depiction of friendship.

This is a novel of profound interiority, all the more remarkable for being crafted mostly out of detached exteriority. In the rare instance when it enters a character's mind, the effect is marvellous.

During the wedding of Eileen's sister, the narrative suddenly shifts into a Virginia Woolf-like slipstream, dipping in and out of people's heads and diving into the depths of Eileen and Simon's history.

Breaking up and staying together, Eileen tells Alice, is ultimately what matters to the individual, even in the face of what she calls "general systems collapse" - "when there's nothing left in front of us, it's still the only thing we want to talk about".

She adds: "And I love that about humanity, and in fact it's the very reason I root for us to survive - because we are so stupid about each other."

Hell is other people, Jean-Paul Sartre said once. That may be true, but Rooney's characters come to realise that it is also in other people - in our connection with those we love - that the beautiful world lies hidden.

If you like this, read: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (Orion, 2020, $18.95, available here). Ava, 22, moves from Dublin to Hong Kong to teach English. She enters into a relationship with Julian, a wealthy British banker, but while he is away on business, she falls for Edith, a local lawyer.

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