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Beautiful World, Where Are You?

I was struck by the fact that this book was getting a huge amount of press, and I was clearly supposed to have heard of the author, Sally Rooney, but I had not. And when I asked people about this, I was told it was generational. Rooney is “a millennial author” and I am not a millennial reader. I took this as a challenge! Can I read millennially?

Here are some thoughts which I suppose contain plot spoilers if you are the sort of reader who wants to avoid those before reading the books. (I am.)

What I really like about the book is its strange and affecting choice to use a narrative voice which can go anywhere and see anything but cannot enter any of the main characters’ minds. Everything is done through dialogue and description of bodily motion. The narrator never speaks in the first person but somehow has a personality, is a kind of lonely spirit, which sometimes wanders away from the narrative action entirely and goes out into the night, while the characters keep talking inside the cozy, lighted house, where the narrator can no longer hear. (The only other recent book I can think of that does something like this is is J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River, but the purpose there is pretty different; that one is really going for, and achieving, outright spookiness.)

This choice is the central stylistic fact of the novel and every moment gets colored by it, as in a novel written in the second person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, for instance, and the fact that we are locked out of the human experience of it, just watching bodies roll over each other, makes it uncomfortable to read — frankly, kind of porny. By design, since the characters themselves are not really able to experience each other as people, even though at moments they think they’re so doing.

The story is broken up by emails from one character to another — in a normal novel these could be simply changes of register, a comfortable way to vary the style and bring in information about the characters without cramming it artificially into dialogue or reminiscence. But here, because we’ve been locked out of the characters’ minds, the artificiality of the form comes to the fore. We don’t experience the emails as direct contact with the character’s beliefs, but as performances, which is of course what letters actually are. And so the little philosophical essays that might otherwise be read as authorial thesis statements by proxy are, here, more like — what, affectations? Things the characters wear, like clothes, from which observers can tell what kind of people they are asserting themselves to be.

About two-thirds of the way through, the narrative breaks the rule and goes into Eileen’s mind for a reminiscence of her early romantic feeling for Simon, the man we’re watching her present-day romance with. (Simon is also Jesus, sort of.) I’m not sure why Rooney does this. In fact the book, which sets itself up very satisfyingly, doesn’t seem to know what to do once it has established its mood of eerie distance. The last part of the novel — back to the distant narrator, at this point — contains a lot of long monologues which feel purposeless and lack the snap of the very, very good renderings of speech earlier on. To be honest I had the feeling Rooney was tired of moving the characters around on the board and knows that in novels people traditionally settle down together in the end so that’s what happens. But this very assured and unconventional book doesn’t like having a conventional ending. On some level I think Rooney recognizes this, so puts the ending in a pair of letters rather than try to narrate it.

This sounds like I didn’t like it, but I did like it. Rooney set herself a difficult task and didn’t, it seems to me, bring it off; but most books don’t even try anything hard.

Some other people writing on this book:

Tony Tulathimutte in the Nation, who makes some correct criticisms of some of the sentences in the book;

Anne Enright in the Guardian, who is very good on the strange power of the novel’s style, and who is completely won over by the ending that left me so unsatisfied.

Update: There is another read here, which is that I’m overthinking it and this is meant to be the sort of novel in which you feel about the characters the way you might about people you know, and just straightforwardly hope for certain outcomes for them, the way one does (I mean, I do) in The Age of Innocence or Elena Ferrante novels (I mean, the ones I’ve read.) If that’s the work the book is doing, it didn’t work for me (but I think it worked for others, like Anne Enright.)

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