The arrival of Sally Rooney’s third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (BWWAY) has generated a level of excitement rarely seen in the world of literary fiction. Rooney’s Marxism-tinged romances are unusual and remarkably successful additions to the Irish literary landscape that have garnered international success and widespread acclaim. Her second novel Normal People was adapted into a hit television programme and a further adaptation is on the way. Rooney has been described as a “millennial Salinger” and dubbed the voice of her generation. A generation of highly educated, anxious, downwardly mobile young people have been the engine of the emerging cultural fixation on economic inequality and impending environmental catastrophe, themes which reverberate through this latest novel’s core.
Such a meteoric rise was always likely to engender a backlash. Much of the backlash seems to be in response to the initial effusive praise, a dynamic referenced in BWWAY. Critics have also asked why a writer who identifies so assiduously with radical politics would devote herself to writing about lovelorn Irish teenagers. BWWAY seems to answer that critique by centering politics as never before. While previous Rooney novels involved discussing Slavoj Žižek at a dinner party or students discoursing in an undergraduate seminar, Rooney’s new novel is built around emails sent between the two main characters, Alice, a young successful novelist in her late twenties, and Eileen, her best friend from college who works as an underpaid editorial assistant at a minor Dublin literary magazine. The epistolary sections which describe their lives, relations with men, their families and each other, as well as their general sense of political despair and revulsion with contemporary consumer culture, are nuanced, engaging and frustrating in an almost simultaneous fashion:
“Our quality of life is in decline, and along with it, the quality of aesthetic experience available to us. The contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions irrelevant; mainstream cinema is family-friendly nightmare porn funded by car companies and the US Department of Defense; and visual art is primarily a commodity market for oligarchs.”
This passage signals one of the book’s central tensions: what is the point of art when the world is in crisis? How dare we fixate on our love lives while we attempt to repress all the misery around the world? Rooney’s thoughtful engagement with the central questions produced by her own work signals a growing skill as a writer that is reflected elsewhere in the novel.
Thankfully, despite the double blockbuster success of Normal People first as a novel and then as a TV programme, Rooney chose to centre BWWAY on the same relationship that animated her debut Conversations with Friends: a close female friendship characterised by both intimacy and resentment. This structure is much more fruitful and interesting than the well-executed but ultimately pedestrian romance of Normal People. Alice and Eileen are similar in many ways, but their geographic and professional divergence has amplified conflicts that have been long dormant. This leads to wonderfully taut depictions of challenging and complicated interactions. Rooney’s novels have been noted for their characters’ communications through mediums like texting. In BWWAY we see communication fail, meaning become distorted, and grievance crystallise in real-time and in a way that is deeply compelling.
BWWAY brings a new complexity to the themes and experiences explored in Rooney’s novels. This is largely embodied by the two male love interests. Simon is a left-wing political apparatchik and a devout Catholic through whom questions of faith, as an antidote to the emptiness of modern life, are considered. Felix is a worker in a distribution centre and through him we see Rooney’s first central character that exists in a firmly manual working class setting. There are subtle but evocative depictions of the toll his work takes on him. The precarious hours, regular injuries, and the humiliation and inconvenience of management surveillance. His alienation is captured in a powerful sequence that counterposes his workday with that of the affluent idleness of his novelist partner . This culminates in a reckoning with the toll his alienation plays on his sense of self and his relationship with others. These themes of faith and work are new and very welcome. They contribute to the richness of BWWAY’s expression.
BWWAY is not an epic tale of class struggle or an airtight manifesto for social action. It is, however, an intelligent, sensitive and keenly observed account of a cohort of people who are acutely aware of capitalism’s deleterious impact on our lives and our world. It captures the social reality that there are many of us who desperately want the world to change but who are unsure if it can be done. Perhaps the stark depiction of this doubt and the resonance the novel is having with so many is an indication of our collective potential for transformation. However, even if Rooney’s characters are right and there is no true political value in contemporary literature, BWWAY is certainly a better beach read than Das Kapital.