“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.”

Recent Reading: King, Lawson, Mitford

I have read three NFW (not for work!) books since finishing The Strangers: Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge, and (sort of) Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing. None of them was very demanding, unless you count the struggle to persist with The Blessing, which by about half way through I was just tired of. I didn’t really finish it: because it was for my book club, I really tried, but I ended up short on both time and patience and so did a very sloppy speed read so that I could at least say I saw the last page. 🙂

I was inspired to order The Other Side of the Bridge because I read Lawson’s latest, A Town Called Solace, for a review and also had recently read and liked Road Ends. I am pretty sure I read Crow Lake back when it was a new release, but that was in the Before Blogging so I can’t be sure. That I hadn’t followed up with her subsequent novels suggests that if I did read it, I didn’t love it. I don’t know if I would say I “loved” any of these other ones, but they are all very readable. They are all on a small scale: if I were devising a marketing blurb for them I might describe them as “Anne Tyler in Alice Munro country,” intimate family stories, often shot through with loss or trauma but softened by a kind of tenderness in the point of view, set in rural landscapes that are bleak but sustaining.

I looked up Writers and Lovers because of a swell of Twitter endorsements: I forget the exact context (as one does, with Twitter recommendations) but recently someone asked for smart but light(er) books for their mother to read on vacation, IIRC, and Writers and Lovers got a lot of shout-outs, and I already had it on my ‘watch list’ because of some earlier mentions. Twitter is both wonderful and terrible this way, of course: sometimes you are just (or, at any rate, I am just) sucked in by buzz around new, hot titles, but sometimes—and these are the good times!—you learn about books you’d never heard of before from readers whose range is wider than yours and whose judgments and sensibilities you believe in. (And yet I still can’t bring myself to read Bear, in spite of Dorian and everyone else. I went so far as to suggest it for my book club, and everyone’s expression on Zoom was basically ‘WTF you weirdo?!’) Anyway, I didn’t much like Writers and Lovers at first: plots about young people’s boyfriends and dating and break-ups sometimes seem as alien to me now as stories set on Mars. The novel’s protagonist is not exactly “young,” though, and she’s a writer, and her mother has just died quite young and very unexpectedly, and her struggles with her novel and her grief add layers to the story of her love life. A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are writers, and of course even more of them are readers, and I do sometimes think this skews the books that get a lot of attention, the way that following so many academics made The Chair seem like such a big event on Twitter when in fact surely it is quite a niche little thing. Writers and Lovers spent a fair amount of time on workshops and creative angst and agents and things—and on the stress and logistics of waiting tables, work I am pretty sure I would be terrible at. I expected something lighter, but in the end it was the sadder parts I liked the best, especially because (spoiler alert) they are capped off with a happy ending. It felt earned.

Now I am reading Lindsay Zier-Vogel’s Letters to Amelia, which is going well so far and has even made me think perhaps I should get to Newfoundland one of these days. Also in my TBR pile: Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (because I decided I might as well find out for myself), and Molly Peacock’s Flower Diary, which is a physically beautiful object. Some of you might recall how much I loved The Paper Garden. It is a bit stunning to realize it has been nearly a decade since I wrote it up. It inspired me so much, including to reflect on my own efforts to find “[my] own form among the endless varieties of life on earth.” “Five years ago,” I wrote then, “though I had done a lot of writing, I would never have called myself a writer. Now, that identity lives for me as a possibility.” I am still not entirely sure that I call myself a writer, but I certainly have done a lot more writing since then, including here!

Recent Reading: Gyasi & Rooney

gyasiI continued trying harder this week to do better reading, choosing books that I hoped would bring more or different rewards than my recent rather desultory choices of mysteries and romances. I had mixed success in terms of immediate satisfaction–I didn’t have a lot of fun reading either of the novels I finished this week, but both were thoughtful books that led to thought-provoking experiences.

First up was finishing Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which I had started a few weeks back and set aside when I realized I had to dig in on the Balkan Trilogy if I was going to write my TLS piece about it in anything other than a total panic. That I hadn’t really felt the pull of it in the meantime and chose, when I felt free to do more personal reading again, to read other things is symptomatic of my relationship with the novel. I was interested in it from the start, and once I went back to it I remained interested in it until the end, but even though I found the story of Gifty and Nana a sad and sometimes harrowing one, the novel never gripped me emotionally: I felt at a distance from its (and their) feelings. I think some of that might be the result of deliberate choices on Gyasi’s part: Gifty’s voice, for example, is often quite detached, and her interests, at least as she articulates them, are often  intellectual or philosophical. She is processing trauma and grief in that way, by asking questions about what things mean and also by turning her family experience into something she can investigate – however imperfectly – through science. Her experiments are a way of managing what happened with her brother’s addiction and death, of trying to convert something that makes no sense to her into something wholly explicable.

The other crucial layer of the novel is her struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with both Nana’s addiction and her own scientific predilections. This made perfect sense as part of Gifty’s personal journey, but there wasn’t much in it that interested me very much, partly because, as a life-long atheist, I can enter only theoretically or hypothetically into someone’s crisis of faith. If it’s going to feel important to me, I need to have a really strong sense of what makes it so difficult to let go of the religious side — or what makes it so important to hang on to it — not in terms of an argument about it, but in terms of the power it has for the character: what does it offer them, or has it meant to them, that a life without religion cannot? There are definitely literary texts that convey this urgency to me (the first writer who comes to mind is actually Hopkins, whose “terrible sonnets” I find extremely powerful–or Tennyson’s In Memoriam) or that tell a story about how faith matters in such a way that, although it is very much not my own world view, I find it compelling nonetheless. I just didn’t have that response to Transcendent Kingdom, which offered neither the intensity of a vicarious religious experience nor any novel insight into either belief or unbelief. Here’s a representative passage with Gifty reflecting on the relationship between faith and science:

gyasi2This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but, at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.

As a description of a character’s point of view, this is fine–good, even. As a commentary on the relationship between science and religion, though, it seems pretty perfunctory and not at all memorable. (I think the novel, or Gifty, also underestimates the capacity of godless people to find meaning and even wonder in the world: Gyasi relies too much on a reductive opposition that she then, unsurprisingly, can’t reconcile or overcome in any profound way.) Maybe it’s as simple as the difficulty of incorporating philosophy into fiction. A “novel of ideas” is one of the hardest things to write without being either didactic or obscure–and while also fully dramatizing the concepts behind it.

NPThe other novel I read this week was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, after finishing the extraordinarily intimate and touching series. I have thought a lot about how watching the adaptation first (something I rarely do) affected my reading of the novel. The most important thing is that it inspired me to read the novel at all: after giving up part way through Conversations with Friends because I was “bored stiff with the process of reading Rooney’s prose,” I had assumed Normal People was also not for me. I’m still not sure what I think about it qua novel, because the whole time I was reading it, I could hear the lines in my head as delivered by the actors (the script is extraordinarily close to the novel–a sign, in some ways, of exactly what I don’t like about Rooney’s style–shouldn’t there be more sense of something lost in the translation to a different medium, the way no 19th-century novel is ever as good in the adaptation because, among other things, you inevitably lose the narrator?).

That said, Normal People is not quite as minimal as Conversations with Friends: there actually are some conspicuously written moments: flashes of gorgeous metaphors (“Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings,” for example–not the narrator’s own words, but Connell’s, rare evidence of the gifted writer he is supposed to be), or observations, contexts, or or internal reflections that at most we can only infer from the many long silences in the adaptation. Still, the sentences overall have the same flat affect and monotonous tone that alienated me from her earlier novel–except when I “listened” to their soft Irish lilt. Could it be that the accent makes all the difference? Not for everyone, obviously, as Rooney has been widely acclaimed. Why did I need the text on the page translated into talking before I could feel it? Because I definitely did feel Normal People. In fact, I felt so sad when I finished it I could hardly get back to my to-do list for the day. I did not find the adaptation so devastating, even though it covers so precisely the same ground. There was just so much tenderness in it: the way they looked at each other, which is described in the novel too but so sparingly you have to take the intimacy on trust, while on screen, you can see it, even when (especially when) they aren’t touching or talking. (They both give such good performances.)


Did the series bring something to the novel that isn’t actually there? Or did it bring out something I might have missed if I’d read before watching, because the novel isn’t written in a style I like? Whatever it was, I found that I was willing to believe in depths behind the boringly minimal prose of Normal People that I couldn’t feel or believe in when I tried Conversations with Friends.

toibinNext up, I think, is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which was one of my Christmas gifts, and then probably Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster, which I couldn’t resist when I saw it in the selection of March sale books at the King’s Bookstore. Plus I’m also, always, reading for class as well: in the ‘Woman Question’ seminar, we are doing a poetry cluster in the upcoming module, after wrapping up The Mill on the Floss this week, so that will be a change of pace; and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we are starting Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. Because I’ve assigned (as recommended for online courses) quite a bit less reading in both classes than I usually do, I am a bit wistful about what we aren’t covering, but all indications are that this kind of paring back is the right move–and I guess all things considered, I’m not really sorry given how laborious other aspects of online teaching continue to be.

Incompatible: Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends

rooneyI don’t typically post about books I didn’t finish, and I don’t want to make a big contrarian to-do about my having given up on Conversations With Friends, but it is what I’ve been reading lately and I have given up on it, so I might as well at least comment briefly on it here.

I began the novel with some skepticism but also, as always, with the hope that I’d be pleasantly surprised. I told the friend who kindly lent me her copy that I feared it was going to be yet another new novel that is “coolly underwritten,” and it is exactly that. I tried to keep an open mind, though, especially because books that are minimalist in some ways can sometimes be very powerful. For me, books like that would include all the ones I’ve ready by Kent Haruf, for instance, though not Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I said ultimately read to me as if Strout had “used this dispersed form to let herself off the hook.”

It wasn’t exactly, or entirely, the spareness of Conversations With Friends that put me off it, however. It was something about the quality of the sentences, which seemed flat to the point of monotonous: not just the flat affect I’ve protested against before in highly polished contemporary fiction (even really smart fiction I admire, like Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children) but wearisomely unvaried in their tone and rhythm. A sample, chosen (honest!) by just letting the book fall open anywhere:

When I arrived at the house all the windows and doors were open. I rang the doorbell anyway. When I got inside he was drying his hands on a tea towel, like he’d just finished washing up. He smiled and told me he’d been feeling nervous about seeing me again. The dog was lying on the sofa. I hadn’t seen her on the sofa before and wondered if maybe Melissa wouldn’t let her sleep there. I asked Nick why he was nervous and he laughed and made a little shrugging gesture, though one that seemed more relaxed than anxious. I leaned my back against the countertop while he folded the towel away.

I was bored stiff by the process of reading Rooney’s prose, and while I am open to arguments about how really this effect is all about the narrator’s own inadequacies in some way, I simply didn’t care enough about Frances–or anyone else in the novel, as they all seemed equal parts dull and insufferable–to press on past page 100. Whatever revelation or maturation or epiphany lies ahead for Frances, she’s going to have to go through it without me as a witness.

Is it me? Is it the book? It’s both, of course, as it always is.

Postscript: Now I’m reading Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad. How much more interesting, in every way, is this little excerpt than that quotation from Conversations with Friends? “‘The yellow globes shone jovially through the mesh of the bag. ‘She’s trying to work magic,’ thought the doctor. ‘She wants to work magic with three miserable lemons. She thinks that if she shows death she is not frightened of it, it will run away. She thinks that if she turns up at the old man’s bedside with lemons she will find him still alive.'”