Arts and Entertainment

Zillenial Existential Dread

A review of popular novelist Sally Rooney’s most recent book.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Many feel as if they are living in unprecedented times. A hazy question mark floats around everything, whether with regard to job prospects, the housing market, or the fate of humanity itself.

This sort of anxiety permeates the work of Irish literary wunderkind Sally Rooney, none the more so than in her most recent novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” released on September 7. Following the success of her first novel "Conversations with Friends" (2017) and the even greater success of her second, "Normal People" (2018), “Beautiful World Where Are You?” sets out to answer the very question posed in the title.

Alternating between omniscient third person narration and an epistolary e-mail correspondence, "Beautiful World Where Are You?" follows a pair of best friends (Alice and Eileen) and their respective love interests. The book differs from Rooney’s other work, as the characters are already in their late 20s and early 30s, well into their careers, and past that fleeting precipice of youth in which you still think your dreams may very well be realized.

For Alice, an idealistic and successful novelist with critical and commercial acclaim, achieving her dreams was the part that caused her to spiral. Following a mental breakdown and brief stint at the psychiatric hospital, Alice has fled to a small town near the ocean. She meets Felix, working a blue-collar warehouse job, and asks him to travel to Rome with her. Back in Dublin her old college roommate Eileen is recovering from a bad breakup, stuck in a dead-end job at a literary magazine. Her story follows her and Simon, a man she's known since childhood, and their tricky relationship that has escaped definition ever since.

It is difficult to describe “Beautiful World Where Are You” beyond that—critics and fans alike have noted the style of Rooney’s novels, a style that is best summed up as “No plot, just vibes.” Of course things happen, but it is largely a character study. They love, cry, fight, make up, and worry. They have philosophical conversations about the morality of spending one's life loving, crying, fighting, making up, and worrying.

Rooney's writing may be extremely accessible and easy to read, but nevertheless, she demonstrates an incredible command over language. Her dialogue is at its best in “Beautiful World Where Are You” and it seems that she recently turned over a new leaf in comedic writing––there are actually some laugh-inducing moments in this book. Her signature lack of quotation marks and the direct and sparse narration invites readers to pass their own judgments and come to their own conclusions. But on the few occasions that there is a precise look into the heads of the characters, it is all the more impactful.

Alice and Eileen are Rooney-typical leading ladies: prestigiously educated, painfully self-aware, and mildly unhinged. Smart enough to understand their poor decisions, but for whatever reason, powerless to stop. In between their romantic entanglements, they write to each other (in lengthy emails that utilize at least one SAT caliber vocabulary word per sentence, for some reason) about everything—their lives, their loves, and the Bronze Age Collapse.

The epistolary chapters have garnered some criticism, perhaps rightfully so. Though providing valuable insight into the voices of the characters and acting as a sharp contrast to the eerie omniscient uncertainty of the other chapters, they are often dominated by philosophical musings and existential anxieties that alternate between genuinely lovely and thought provoking, to ridiculously first-world, and—this is the most important—extremely meta. There is a large emphasis placed on a recurring question throughout the e-mails, first posed by Alice. In a world racked with suffering, the majority of the population living in what the girls would consider abject poverty, what do the things that Alice and Eileen concern themselves with even matter? The irony is obvious, maybe even prompting readers to wonder whether this is satirical or not.

Where “Normal People” and “Conversations With Friends” had lasting appeal and an ambiguous timeline—obviously taking place within the 21st century and post the 2008 economic downturn—you can't really pinpoint it beyond that. The book is really a book of the current moment. Conversations on the state of modern conservatism, capitalism, and politics are abundant throughout. What makes it interesting is the fact that the book directly acknowledges its relation to time. In an e-mail to Alice, Eileen talks of how "there is no longer a neutral setting, there is only the timeline," speaking of the manner in which everything, including art, is defined by its relation to the current period of historical crisis. By the end of the book, the pandemic is underway.

Contemporary novels being chronically of their time is nothing new. English literary critic James Wood coined the term “Hysterical Realism” in 2000 in an effort to describe what he felt was a trend of novels characterized by absurd prose (the hysterical) and in-depth discussion of social phenomenon (the realism). While Rooney's writing could hardly be characterized as this—shorter and focused on the mundane—she attempts to describe how the world works and how somebody felt about something. This wouldn't be a problem if her social commentary wasn't half-baked every single time.

At the start, it seems like there is potential. Felix spends more hours working, only to make a fraction of what Alice does; Eileen has conversations with her fellow workers about the state of capitalism. There was the setup for something more. The issue is that the girls—Alice in particular, who is literally a millionaire—spend so much time reflecting upon their privileged place in the world, only to come to the conclusion that the only thing you can do is to savor the moment and cherish your loved ones. In a way, this is the best and worst thing about "Beautiful World Where Are You.” The conclusion is emotionally fulfilling and leaves you with a warm feeling because alongside all the self-indulgent moral debate, Alice and Eileen do genuinely build precious relationships with the boys and with each other. The reader is left happy that on the personal end, things more or less worked out. But for a book that presents itself as a political project—and it would be an entirely different matter if it never attempted to do so—it serves to reinforce the sense of psychological comfort that holds together the mental health of those who are “aware” of their privilege in the first world.

From a literary point of view, the novel is moving and beautiful, and perhaps that is the point it tries to make, that that is all that matters. Funnily enough, I feel as if I've fallen victim to the very phenomenon described in the book: judging art relative to the timeline. But although I appreciate the irony, I can’t help but believe that the “lesson” of the book, so to speak, is the same stale rhetoric that has always been used to keep people comfortable and complacent.