Here I Am
tl;dr: omg it's so millennial, the struggle is real because duh, I can't even
By Toh Hsien Min
Beautiful World, Where Are You
During the BooksActually saga in September, in the midst of the crowd of the sinless lining up to cast the first, second, third and fourth stones, few people noticed that Irish novelist Sally Rooney had something to say about Kenny Leck and his actions. "My impulse was actually to forgive him, especially because he has apparently spent a long time feeling remorseful and blaming himself. But I had to recognise it wasn't my place to do that either, since the actions he described may have impacted other people's lives permanently and would never have any effect on me. I can't step in as a disinterested third party and absolve him of his sins, just as he can't absolve me of mine," she wrote. "It made me think about people who have done bad things – what they are supposed to do with themselves, and what we as a society are supposed to do with them. At the moment, the cycle of insincere public apologies is probably making everyone suspicious of forgiveness. But what should people who have done terrible things in the past actually do?"
I might have been a tad duplicitous however. It is unlikely that Rooney is aware of a bookshop in Singapore that was, throughout September, heavily promoting her new novel, for when one has written the most hyped novel of the year, there will be too many points of sale to keep tabs of. And yet, how this extended quotation from two-fifths into Beautiful World, Where Are You plausibly speaks to a real-life hullabaloo perhaps captures the very saleable genius of Rooney. That is to say, it says nothing at all with enough specificity to be alienating, and says it with enough articulate earnestness to produce enough hooks to catch the socks of people passing by.
Then again, such aporectic exploration is not just a stylistic tic, but central to Beautiful World, Where Are You. The four protagonists – Alice the famous novelist and (debatable) stand-in for Rooney herself, Eileen her best friend and editorial assistant at a literary magazine, Felix the warehouse packer who Alice inexplicably falls for, and Simon the political aide who happens to be Eileen's first love – seem to be normal people muddling through normal life while pursuing an ever-elusive happiness and second-guessing how they might build happiness on what exactly. This sets Rooney up to write a novel where nothing happens. Unless one approaches the novel with exponentiated cynicism and posits the abstract idea of happiness as the MacGuffin, there isn't even a MacGuffin.
Instead, enabled by an interleaving email-and-narrative structure and characters with intellectual aspirations, Rooney often wears her theoretical heart in between her book sleeves. In this Marxian world, "each day has now become a new and unique informational unit, interrupting and replacing the informational world of the day before. […] The present has become discontinuous. […] There is only the timeline." The two female protagonists exchange notes on "right wing politics […] conservatism […] capitalism" and congratulate each other on their awareness. There are tell-not-show digressions into Linear B and Christianity and willing exposure of the Marxian substratum:
Most noticeable is a recurring disassociation from contemporary fiction scattered throughout the novel:
But these postures never amount to anything consequential: "Simon said that while of course he did care, in theory, it didn't seem to make much difference whether he did or not." When Eileen writes to Alice on consumerism, she admits the things she buys "just create waste and make me unhappy anyway", but she rapidly follows this with a form of self-check: "Not that I'm comparing my dissatisfaction to the misery of actually oppressed peoples…" The identity politics are unsubtle if ironic, and ethical consciousness is a breeding ground for passive aggression: "I'm not trying to make you feel that your horrible life is in fact a privilege, although by any reasonable definition it very literally is." In this environment, is it a wonder that the characters' relationships are defined by distance? The distance of some of the third-person description, particularly in the opening two narrative sections, echoes the deliberate distancing of the characters. Faced with an opportunity to help a friend, even the well-behaved Simon says "my instinct is not to get too involved", while Felix – whose name is an anagram for Flexi – openly declares his "not really looking for any big commitments in [his] life". Even the self-declared two female best friends avoid each other, necessitating the email exchanges, which Felix points out: "How come you're only visiting her now? […] Maybe neither of you were that keen on seeing each other". Maybe the echo chamber works best in virtual space, or maybe there is a maximum concentration of neuroses that can be clustered in the same space? The inability to see through the (let's face it) received identity categories and grow leads Rooney's characters to stultify, adopting behaviours that run contrary to their desires: "I tell myself that I want to live a happy life, and that the circumstances for happiness just haven't arisen. But what if that's not true? What if I'm the one who can't let myself be happy?"
Perhaps that's what the millennial generation of readers wants. Neuroses are often uninteresting when they are other people's, which is why Alice and Eileen sometimes read like two chemicals that would explode upon coming into direct contact, but seen in the fictional test tube they offer readers consolation. The struggle is real, because duh. If this is Rooney's intent, one can understand through the lens of manipulation how she paints a photo-realistic picture of the self-absorption that is simultaneously one of the drivers of the novel and one of the defining characteristics of our age:
Newsflash: not everything is about you. But perhaps that's why you deserve your dysfunctional relationships and your unhappiness.
In substitution, these characters turn to sex. It's almost possible to sum up Beautiful World, Where Are You in its own words as "either a huge argument or sex". There is clearly a link back to inner neuroses, as seen when Alice psychoanalyses herself as a form of foreplay and then follows with really quite good physical foreplay and lots of it, before fast-forwarding past the actual sex itself: "He got on top of her then and kissed her neck. Afterwards, when they parted, Alice seemed to fall asleep instantly…" There is phone sex, sex followed by mass, remembrance of sex past. There are numerous fantasies and discussions of fantasies, and misunderstandings built on sex. There is more extended foreplay text followed by zipping past the sex itself ("Jesus Christ, he said. Afterwards, he lay down against her body"), more perfunctory sex, more express sex ("Afterwards, she turned over on her belly…" – you know the formula by now). Leaving aside the blackout curtains, the prose is often economically convincing, but despite touching upon power plays and interchangeability with love, the sex never feels integral to the novel. More often it feels like relief, or offers the floating world as a substitute for the beautiful world. "Of course if we all stay alone and practise celibacy and carefully police our personal boundaries, many problems will be avoided, but it seems we will also have almost nothing left that makes life worthwhile."
After all this, what is left that makes Beautiful World, Where Are You worthwhile? That it is very of its time, covering everything from "burning of fossil fuels" to "routinely check[ing] her social media feeds", from Tinder to Instagram, from Trump poem to "droplets and microscopic aerosol particles diffusing through the air of the room and dropping slowly, slowly, toward the floor"? That Rooney can turn a phrase ("At times I think of human relationships as something soft like sand or water, and by pouring them into particular vessels we give them shape") and fills her novel with soft detail? In conclusion – what is the conclusion? The flat ending of "And as I write you this message I'm very happy. All my love"? I can't even. Perhaps this brings us back to what I had started out with. Take your own situation. Apply.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 4 Oct 2021