Sally Rooney’s Novel of Letters Takes a New Look at Acquaintances


There is an argument that “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is the kind of novel that we are used to, without plot. The characters joke about the uselessness of modern structures and our lack of faith in the dominant narrative. While the techniques of modernism and postmodernism are borrowed, assembled, and arranged like selected items from an Ikea catalog, the non-contemporary novel has none of the hopeless crisis of faith of modernism or postmodernism. That is, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is carefully formless, and its characters are fluid in our common language of systemic collapse, in a neoliberal pattern of learned helplessness vis-a-vis larger systems of capital and labor.

Alice sums it up succinctly when she says of contemporary novelists: “If they are really obsessed with whether their latest book will be reviewed in The New York Times, why do they pretend to be obsessed with death, grief, and fascism?” I laughed and underlined this line. I wrote “very true bestie” in the margins. He later said, “The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that its structural integrity relies on repressing the realities that most people in the world experience. Confronting the poverty and misery that millions of people have had to live with, juxtaposing that poverty, this reality of misery with the ‘main characters’ of a novel would be either distasteful or simply artistically unsuccessful.”

There are several moments when Rooney is recounting what happened to Felix while he was working at the warehouse, while simultaneously recounting Alice’s quiet, authorial work. Such a combination is remarkable. There is some implied humor of course, but you laugh because it exposes the ridiculousness of class stratification and hierarchies of labour. And Rooney knows it. Or he seems to know. Because, as in all the narrative parts of the novel, these moments are presented without comment. A kind of living omniscience that proceeds through redundant explanations. Rooney writes scenes as if he had to write them on a TI-89. Nouns and verbs. This can be pretty, like when describing empty rooms or someone touching their wrist. His writings about sex are tense and direct. It’s a narrative style that I associate with the films of Andrew Haigh and Joanna Hogg, the two great visual poets of social anxiety and silence.

Rooney’s dialogue is excellent most of the time, so perfect that it sometimes turns into a flaw. I mean, they talk like Rooney’s characters are in a ’90s romantic comedies or an adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Consider this conversation between Eileen and Simon:

“Your girlfriends are never middle-aged.”

“And neither am I, yet, thank you.”

Slang is as enjoyable as all the great dialogue is—take another great one from Eileen texting Simon: “Why is it that 30+ guys are texting like they’re updating a LinkedIn profile?” — but sometimes it feels like a rough line reading. Just like his compatriots—narrators from novels by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Andrew Martin—Rooney’s characters babble about the pointlessness of feeling that the world has gone too far to do anything, even though they may seem to agree that our problems are far above ours. heads.

In my less charitable moments, I felt like I had reached a point in our culture where the pinnacle of moral rigor in novel form was an overwhelmed white woman in a big city center sighing and having a thought about the warming planet or world. presence of refugees. This prompted a recent series of novels about white women’s existential malaise in the face of social ills – Lynn Steger Strong’s “Want”; “Drifts” by Kate Zambreno; “Weather” by Jenny Offfill. There is an aesthetic gesture that goes along with every broadcast cycle where one has to evoke a picture of simply feeling overwhelmed, whether through modular narrative, fragments, a laid-back lyrical style, modernist pyrotechnics, or steamy disembodied narrator, and I think go on by defining grass growing. as a protest. Characters who accepted their privileges and access to capital somehow came to be seen as true class criticism in one’s art.


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