Is it okay, as the world falls apart around us, to focus on the inconsequential? Is it okay to be selfish and think about sex and love and other beautiful, temporary things, ignoring the way our society’s many problems are growing ever-larger?
Sally Rooney’s latest novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” seeks to answer these questions. It follows the lives of two women, Eileen and Alice, best friends struggling with pressures of work and relationships and their self-perceived selfishness of focusing on petty, inconsequential things instead of the world’s “real problems.” Alice, a successful author grappling with the unexpected success of her last two novels and a recent nervous breakdown, moves to a small coastal city and meets Felix, a local townie who works at a shipping warehouse. Meanwhile, Eileen, stuck working at a literary journal where she’s overworked and underpaid, is just coming out of a difficult breakup and starting to reconnect with a childhood friend, Simon. The main focus of the novel is the relationship between these two women and the respective men in their lives as they struggle to navigate being painfully human in a world that can often be unforgiving of mistakes.
Rooney’s writing style is very distinct; it focuses on every action of every character, painting a vivid picture of every scene. Although I can understand how this could quickly become annoying for some readers, I thought it strengthened the novel. Indeed, one of Rooney’s biggest strengths has always been her unmistakable voice. In this particular novel, however, Rooney tries something different with the narrative structure: The story is told in two distinct parts, one which employs more traditional prose and the other is presented as a series of emails between Alice and Eileen. However, I found this experimental structure lacking. It creates a disjoint between sections that Rooney wouldn’t have had otherwise. Where the narrative sections stand out, characterized by Rooney’s striking prose, the email chains fall short; they read like the ramblings of someone in a philosophy class who hasn’t done the reading but is trying to pretend they did.
It also made it much more difficult to understand Rooney’s message in the novel. Through all of the rambling and tangential asides about politics and philosophy, Rooney ultimately comes to this answer: It’s okay to be selfish. You can focus on yourself — you can concentrate on the beautiful things the world has to offer and ignore the way that it’s crumbling. “If that means the human species is going to die out,” Eileen writes in an email, “isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine?”
To some extent, I think this is true. Art and love and beauty are all incredibly important: foundationally, they’re what makes life worth living. But Rooney’s argument falls short because she fails to consider the privilege of her characters: Both are white, cisgender women who, on some levels, can afford to ignore some of the ways that the world is falling apart.
What was even more frustrating was that on some level, Rooney’s characters seem to be aware of their privilege, but it’s a very perfunctory sort of awareness. The divide between socioeconomic classes, for example, is an issue that comes up frequently, as Alice is much more financially comfortable than Eileen following the success of the former’s books. Although Eileen mentions this multiple times, even calling Alice out for complaining about the fame that has followed her publications, we see very little come out of it. Beyond acknowledging that her financial security gives her privilege, Alice does little else to change her point of view. When it comes to these interrogations of privilege, our two main characters are disappointingly stagnant.
This is a recurring problem I’ve had with all three of Rooney’s novels: Rooney herself is a self-proclaimed Marxist, and yet, her characters felt like performative representations of her ideologies. Rooney could have done so much more. Instead, it felt like she barely started to scratch the surface of these questions of privilege and selfishness before the novel was over, wrapped up in a neat little bow that brought no closure at all.
“Beautiful world, where are you?” Rooney asks from the beginning. And although her characters seem to find their answer, the book as a whole is irritatingly complacent. The answers that Rooney provides are by no means universal. Her “beautiful world” isn’t one that everyone can find, especially existing within a society structured like ours. Because of this, I walked away from the novel dissatisfied, with many of my initial questions left unresolved.
Thia Bian is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Instagram at @cynthia.bian.