Sally Rooney’s third novel frustrates and disappoints in equal measure.
The View from The Great North Wood
I’m sad to report that the answer to the question posed by the title of Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” is, “Well, not here, at any rate.”
I had looked forward to this for some time, keenly anticipating more of the glorious writing that characterised “Normal People”, a novel I loved, with great surprise after finding her first effort, “Conversations with Friends”, a full blown example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The critics gushed, and told us we were witnessing a new kid on the block who was authentically chronicling life and love as experienced by the middle class, educated twenty-somethings of Dublin (and by extension, everywhere else). I found it tediously thin and empty. “Normal People”, on the other hand, is one of the great novels of the twenty first century, a subtle and beautiful story of an enduring and evolving relationship between a “difficult” middle class young woman and a talented working class young man.
So I come to this with some perspective. Neither an adoring fan, nor an anti-woke critic, I really wanted to love this book. And there is much here to enjoy and admire, but ultimately, it disappoints. It tells the story of four young adults in Dublin and some unspecified Irish seaside town, and their attempts to find meaning in their lives and relationships, doing so via different perspectives, omniscient narrator and text/ digital message exchanges.
Rooney seems at pains to demonstrate how much she really is the voice of a new generation by laying on with a trowel the importance of social media to all of these characters. Time and time again, scenes are punctuated with exhaustive (and exhausting) descriptions of tapping on social media icons, scrolling through news feeds, checking messages etc etc. Sally, we get it. You don’t need to do this. We all do these things, even old fogeys like me. It’s a bit like Charles Dickens droning on about closing the doors on that new-fangled train type thingy. Interestingly, the key relationship, the friendship between Eileen and Alice, only seems to work digitally, when they are writing to each other. Whenever they are together physically in the real world, they fall out, and their friendship seems false and unsupportive.
The social media stuff, and the painstaking, repetitive description of the physical choreography of sex, shows that Rooney seems to want to challenge Knausgard in her relentless accretion of the mundane details of the business of living. Again and again, we are battered with flat, colourless prose recording hands resting on limbs, legs touching and not touching. And just like Knausgard, it is draining and dull and says nothing, a mere inventory masquerading as an insight into a new configuration of millennial sexual relationships.
It’s also hard to love a book that focuses on such unlikeable characters. The two women, Alice and Eileen, apparently best friends, are tiresome in the extreme. Alice is a thinly-veiled portrait of Rooney herself, a young female Dublin novelist who is lionised from her debut novel. This in itself is a little depressing. It’s like the Rock Band who have made it big. Their first album is sparky, innovative, full of energy and ideas. The difficult second album is more of the same with greater technical competence. Then, when they’ve broken through and are established in the mainstream and are selling out stadiums in America, the third album is written in hotel rooms and includes songs about the emptiness of life on the road in endless hotel rooms. The songs reflect their changed circumstances, but who gives a toss? It’s very difficult to empathise with the neuroses of the creative rich and famous.
After a vague nervous breakdown, she now clearly despises the trappings of fame and despairs of the emptiness of her life and world. No matter how hard I tried, I really couldn’t summon any sympathy for a woman afflicted by wealth, fame and privilege. Her friend Eileen, from their university days, is presented as the junior partner in the friendship. Less successful, less confident, her relationship with Alice mirrors that with her elder sister, Lola, despite the fact that Eileen loathes Lola and idolises Alice. Her lack of agency, her diffidence in articulating clearly what she wants, her self-pity about her life, is after a while, simply grating, generating annoyance rather than empathy. A key narrative thread in the novel is her long-standing love for Simon, five years older than she is, who she has known from home since childhood. They have had a history of almost, but not quite, falling into the relationship that clearly both of them want, but circumstances and other relationships, and bad timing have prevented from happening. Simon is probably the only likeable character out of the four, and is in some sense, a rehash of Connell from “Normal People”. Committed to social justice, modest, strikingly fit and handsome, and successful in terms of a career in the political world, he seems like a nice self-effacing kind of chap. Obviously he is markedly inept in terms of opening himself up to intimacy, but dear readers, there are worse crimes to be indicted for.
There is an element of their relationship that works well for me and it’s another echo of “Normal People” which was a tour de force on tentative, awkward communications between people who really like each other but are scared they might say the wrong thing and ruin it all. This is beautifully done there and once again, the conversations between Eileen and Simon are toe-curlingly awkward and realistic, leaving the reader wanting to shout at them, “Just tell each other straight, for God’s sake” Rooney is brilliant on this kind of self-sabotage through embarrassment and feelings of lack of self-worth.
“Telling each other straight” is the one positive quality I could discern in Felix, the final character of the four. He seems to be the partner of choice for Alice so that Rooney can signal her right-on ness yet again. He’s an unskilled working-class chap who she meets on some Tinder-type dating app. Their first date is a disaster but she is intrigued by him. As the novel progresses, we learn that he was a low achiever at school, and does not read, so has little idea of her career as a novelist, but it is clear from Rooney’s descriptions and his dialogue that he is intelligent. The dialogue between Alice and him is refreshing and thought provoking. They fence around like all of the others, but Felix’s great strength is that he is fairly clear and straightforward about what he wants from her. He’s respectful about asking though – this is not a portrait of an abusive man – but Rooney deliberately muddies the waters by including a scene where Alice finds some particularly nasty, violent pornography on his phone. The fact that she does not judge him negatively for this seems to be part of Rooney’s schtick that modern love and sex is different somehow.
I don’t buy it I’m afraid. He lets her know he is bisexual and makes a mockery of his own name by making it very clear he’d like to have sex with the gorgeous Simon, right in front of Alice and everyone else. Rooney seems to be saying that, these days, for these fabled millennials, sex is just another appetite and is disconnected from other emotional connections. Loyalty, fidelity, exclusivity in relationships seems so last century. The ghastly Felix, appears utterly selfish on one level, such that, in a scene late on in the book, when he gets back home to be reunited with his beloved dog and there is a detailed description of him lovingly stroking it, I feared for the dog’s honour. We were genuinely just a short step away from a bold depiction of the love that dare not speak its name. Fear not, gentle reader, the dog survived, honour intact. As did Felix’s relationship with Alice, which just did not ring true to me.
There are some redeeming features. The opening 4 or 5 chapters are wonderful. She is a beautiful, precise writer, and effortlessly draws the reader in to a scenario. I was expecting something magnificent, but ultimately, I was disappointed. She is also brave enough to tackle big ideas. The email/message exchanges between Alice and Eileen have them dissecting weighty themes about the meaning of life. What is important? What really matters in life when climate change and populism threaten our very existence? Rooney concludes it is the connections we make with other people and the pursuit and enjoyment of cultural beauty. The trouble is, after a little while, one’s heart sinks when yet another musing whatsap message exchange about the meaning of life hoves into view. In the end, I just flicked to get to the narrative. Ideas are all very well, but let’s not forget about the story.
Speaking of the story, very early in the novel she gives us ten pages of back story, telling us about the childhood connections between Eileen, Simon and Alice. It’s a curious pause in the proceedings. On its own, it’s a masterful bit of plotting which could have been the outline of a very satisfying, better novel. And then I realised that it was too close to the plot/milieu of Normal People, so she couldn’t just repeat that again. So in effect, it’s a what-happens-next continuation of Normal People in disguise.
The weirdest aspect of the novel for me, given that I think that Rooney is a great stylist, is the curiously flat, perfunctory prose that sucks all of the life out of every description. There is a distance set up between the reader and the characters, and in effect, between the characters themselves, because the style makes it so hard to care about what happens either way. At times it’s like reading the shipping forecast, or a clinical psychotherapist’s academic report, holding up a mirror to the participants.
She’s a wonderful writer, but at the moment the scoresheet reads won 1, drawn 1, lost 1. She needs a big result from the next book. I’ve got my fingers crossed.