“Beneath the Surface”: Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

rooneyWere they aware, in the intensity of their embrace, of something slightly ridiculous about this tableau . . . Or were they in this moment unaware, or something more than unaware—were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world?

I did not expect to love Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. I found Conversations with Friends so boring I didn’t finish it; I was won over by Normal People, but only after watching the adaptation, which taught me to “hear” the book in a gentle Irish lilt. This mixed experience made me curious but hesitant about Beautiful World, Where Are You. I’m really glad now that I gave in to my curiosity rather than letting my annoyance at the ubiquity of the novel’s coverage put me off it. It is an odd novel: self-conscious and artificial and yet at the same time palpably earnest, touching, and, yes, at times beautiful. I don’t know if it is a great or even an entirely successful novel, on its own terms or on mine, but from the moment I began reading it I never stopped wanting to read it. I even stayed up a bit late to finish it, a rare impulse in these dreary middle-aged pandemic times.

It wasn’t the plot that drew me in: there’s actually hardly any plot! In this respect Beautiful World is as minimal as Rooney’s other books—it’s about four friends in a mix-and-match set of relationships that ebb and flow on currents of feeling, from suspicion to tenderness, from annoyance to deep affection. They meet, they separate, they have sex, they eat together, they talk: it couldn’t be more mundane, really, but sorting out their history and following their often prickly interactions lets Rooney quietly explore questions about why and how we love the ones we do, how our work defines us—for ourselves or to others—and why or whether any of this matters or means anything. A number of metafictional comments make sure, a bit heavy-handedly perhaps, that we see this kind of novel as problematic: trivial and irrelevant at best, an exercise in “suppressing the truth of the world” at worst. “The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel,” writes Alice—herself an award-winning novelist—”is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth.” (It is impossible not to see Alice as at least partly an avatar for Rooney herself, though collapsing the two identities completely into one seems like a rookie mistake.) Though I think Beautiful World takes this possible criticism seriously, I also think that by the end it has, if not rebutted it, at least answered it. rooney

That quotation comes from one of the emails between Alice and her longtime best friend Eileen that alternate with the third-person narration of the characters’ lives. There is nothing realistic at all about these email exchanges, or at any rate I don’t know and can’t really imagine anyone whose correspondence is like these messages. I don’t see that as a flaw. For one thing, most real life correspondence is superficial, more or less incoherent, and full of banalities. All epistolary fiction is incredibly artificial, and often the more so the better (or would be). Letters are just another device, another tool for the novelist to use. What fascinated me about the emails in Beautiful World is how deliberately they went “beneath the surface.” Even the very best conversations between friends rarely engage with the kinds of questions Alice and Eileen consider about meaning, ethics, and beauty: it’s hard enough going about our day-to-day business without constantly confronting what Alice calls early on “the unlikeliness of this life”:

I felt dizzy thinking about it. I mean I really felt ill. It was as if I suddenly remembered that my life was all part of a television show—and every day people died making the show, were ground to death in the most horrific ways, children, women, and all so that I could choose from various lunch options, each packaged in multiple layers of single-use plastic.

“Of course,” she goes on to say, “a feeling like that can’t last,” and she’s right: we rely on degrees of deliberate ignorance, or ignoring, to carry on living. I was reminded of the famous passage in Middlemarch about the squirrel’s heart beat, which concludes that even the best of us “walk about well wadded with stupidity.” The emails are an experiment in fictionalizing an examined contemporary life. They made me think about how much we—or at least I—don’t talk about, even with those closest to us.

This isn’t to say that Alice and Eileen arrive at insights that are either profound or satisfying. I am pretty sure I know at least one philosopher who would fault them even for the way they put the questions sometimes, especially questions about the meaning of life, or about how to navigate morality without a religious framework. I don’t know if this is because Rooney is not a great philosophical thinker herself or because, at this level, the emails are just being realistic about how far and how well two people, otherwise fairly ordinary, might do at hashing out big questions. That doesn’t make the exercise (on her part or on theirs) misguided, though. I wouldn’t call Beautiful World a “novel of ideas,” but it is a novel in which ideas are taken seriously, and it provoked me to wonder how we maybe could have more conversations like that in real life, or why we mostly don’t.

NPThe third-person parts of the novel are quite different. The narrator is observant but conspicuously (and, I’m sure, deliberately) not omniscient: the commentary has a hesitancy, an uncertainty, so that the effect is like watching the characters from across the room, or looking in the window at them—hence the frequent tags like “seems like” or “appears to be.” The descriptions are very precise, but they are mostly external; the characters’ thoughts or feelings have to be inferred from their movements, actions, or speech. This too is artifice, of course, and it can feel a bit stilted. But there are also lots of lovely passages like this one:

In the darkness the main room of the apartment lay quiet again and still. Two empty bowls had been left in the sink, two spoons, an empty water glass with a faint print of clear lip balm on the rim. Through the door the sound of conversation murmured on, the words rounded out, indistinct, and by one in the morning silence had fallen. At half past five the sky began to lighten in the east-facing living room window, from black to blue and then to silvery white. Another day. The call of a crow from an overhead power line. The sound of buses in the street.

Or (and this is just part of a longer passage I’d quote in full if I weren’t wary of how long this post is already getting!),

And already now behind the house the sun was rising. On the back walls of the house and through the branches of the trees, through the coloured leaves of the trees and through the damp green grasses, the light of dawn was sifting. Summer morning. Cold clear water cupped in the palm of a hand.

Style is incredibly subjective, of course, and maybe you don’t like these moments as much as I do. There’s nothing elaborately poetic about them, but to me their imagery is captivating because it’s so simple; the sentences—and sentence fragments—seem to me to hit each note just right and then stop.

I said that I thought Beautiful World answered its own criticism that “the contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions) irrelevant.” I’ll wrap up this post by trying to explain what I meant. I don’t mean that it somehow proves that the contemporary novel is in fact “relevant”; I don’t think it is a “novel with a purpose,” a novel purporting to be or to offer solutions to the far-reaching crises its characters acknowledge. Part of what it does is just set those problems aside. Like Alice in the shop, most of us just can’t carry on in a state of constant crisis about what Dorothea in Middlemarch hyperbolically calls “all the troubles of all the people on the face of the earth.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care, or shouldn’t put effort into making the world a better place, but it’s not really, or not just, the novel that’s irrelevant on that large scale: it’s all of us, it’s everything. It’s ridiculous to put such grandiose expectations on everything we do—or on anything we read.

I think Beautiful World also offers a more affirmative response, though: that there is value in both love and art, that they are what can make the world beautiful, that they are worth believing in and standing up for, and that the novel (including this novel) is one way of doing that. “So of course in the midst of everything,” Alice writes to Eileen, “the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?” “A couple of nights ago,” Eileen writes to Alice,

I was getting a taxi home on my own after a book launch. The streets were quiet and dark, and the air was warm and still, and on the quays the office buildings were all lit up inside, and empty, and underneath everything, beneath the surface of everything, I began to feel it all over again—the nearness, the possibility of beauty, like a light radiating softly from behind the visible world, illuminating everything . . . I was tired, it was late, I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.

“As I write you this message,” the novel concludes, “I’m very happy. All my love.”

4 thoughts on ““Beneath the Surface”: Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

  1. Jeanne October 27, 2021 / 2:59 pm

    You’ve changed my mind. I’d seen all the hype and read a few curmudgeonly reviews and had decided not to try this one, but now I think I’ll have to see for myself.

    • Rohan Maitzen October 27, 2021 / 3:34 pm

      You might hate it! But it really worked for me. It reminded me a lot more of Middlemarch (despite being completely different in almost every way!) than I had time to put into this pos.

  2. lynnblin8356 October 28, 2021 / 11:39 am

    Thanks for this review. I read Normal People and thought it was okay, but not good enough for me to read Conversation with Friends. ( Even though I had read it with the Irish lilt). I never got around to seeing the film version. But you have become a guide for much of my reading. So I will definitely give Beautiful World Where Are you? a try. I have just finished Jon McGregor’s Lean, Fall, Stand. My favourite read of the past three months.

    • Rohan Maitzen October 28, 2021 / 1:13 pm

      It is an odd book and I can imagine the emails especially might rub some readers the wrong way. But I appreciated the desire to take seriously questions about how to live a moral life under current conditions.

      I hadn’t heard of Lean, Fall, Stand: I’ve added it to my ‘books of interest’ list – thank you!

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