The great thing about being a character in a Sally Rooney novel is that the person you are obsessed with is always obsessed with you, too. There is no unrequited love in Rooney’s books, only miscommunication that results from a lack of self-actualization. Under these conditions alone, the world of a Sally Rooney novel could seem like a utopia of sorts — aside from the organizing principle of political despair that pervades the characters’ consciousness.
In Normal People, Rooney’s second book that catapulted her to mainstream fame (much to her chagrin, as the bulk of her recent interviews suggest), Marianne and Connell have an on-again, off-again involvement beginning in high school. Even though they part ways at the end of the novel, they spend the majority of their young adulthood orbiting each other romantically, despite their very different class backgrounds. In Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends, although Frances and Nick are clearly involved in an ill-fated sexual entanglement, each is living rent-free in the other’s brain, alternating between reaching out and pushing the other away throughout their affair. And the friendship between Frances and Bobbi — arguably the more interesting relationship of that book, characterized as it is by rivalry, resentment, attraction, and unconditional love — is crucial for both characters.
Likewise, in Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney’s third and latest book, the four main characters are held together by the unbreakable bonds of emotional neurosis. Eileen and Simon are childhood neighbors whose ongoing flirtation and friendship has recently crossed the threshold of platonic deniability. They can’t imagine a life without the other in it, but their fear of losing what they do have together threatens to prevent their connection from moving further. Felix and Alice, a warehouse worker and a successful novelist who has recently moved to his small town, meet on Tinder and embark on a mutual infatuation that mystifies everyone around them due to the gulf in their class backgrounds and interests (Alice is rich and famous, while Felix has a backbreaking, mind-numbing job; Felix never reads Alice’s books).
Alice and Eileen have been best friends since college, and they maintain an email correspondence encompassing intellectual and philosophical debates as well as their romantic involvements. This correspondence, which reflects the importance each one places on her friend’s opinions and advice, forms the underlying structure of the book. Beautiful World alternates between these epistolary interludes and third-person narration of the quartet’s follies and exertions.
The characters themselves, and Rooney through them, are trying to figure out how to put their interpersonal dramas in proper perspective against the backdrop of what feels like a rapidly deteriorating society. “In the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?” Alice writes to Eileen.
Eileen becomes fixated on the lessons of the Late Bronze Age collapse for our current predicament, but then she wonders about people whose lives were barely impacted by the collapse because they never experienced a taste of the wealth that preceded it — people who were blips in the historical record but made up the vast majority of humanity. She writes:
Our rich and complex international networks of production and distribution have come to an end before, but here we are, you and I, and here is humanity. What if the meaning of life on earth is not eternal progress toward some unspecified goal — the engineering and production of more and more powerful technologies, the development of more and more complex and abstruse cultural forms? What if these things just rise and recede naturally, like tides, while the meaning of life remains the same always — just to live and be with other people?
This tension between politics and personal life, and the extent to which each should provide a sense of meaning and purpose, is an unresolved question in Beautiful World, Where Are You. Alice engages in some meta-analysis in the form of literary criticism that seems to apply to the book she exists within as easily as it does her own writing: “Who can care . . . what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter?” She answers that “the [contemporary Euro-American novel] works by suppressing the truth of the world — packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text.”
Beautiful World reads as an attempt by Rooney to transcend this inherent limitation of the bourgeois novel: to overcome the apparent contradiction of foregrounding broadly inconsequential relationship drama in the setting of a world in crisis by addressing it directly. She has done this by writing a book that is, at first glance, completely organized around the question of whether “the protagonists break up or stay together,” but whose characters demand something more from the world around them.
Alice believes that only by denying the reality of exploitation and misery undergirding our existence can a novel allow its readers to care about the petty conflicts and triumphs of its protagonists’ lives. But the characters in Beautiful World represent an alternative to that. They are preoccupied with issues like capitalism and the rapid destruction of the planet, yet they continue to be just as self-involved, just as interested in the frivolous demands of love and sex and friendship as humans really are.
“I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilization is facing collapse,” says Eileen. “But at the same time, that is what I do every day.”
But also like the average person, Beautiful World’s characters do not seem to find an answer to their questions in political organizing. Eileen argues about Marxism with acquaintances at a party, defending a definition of the working class that includes anyone forced to sell their labor to survive. But the closest any one of them seems to come to actual political involvement is Simon, who works as some sort of low-ranking legislative aide in an unnamed left-wing party.
“I would like to be helpful in some small way to the project, whatever it is,” says Eileen, “and if I could help only in a very small way, I wouldn’t mind . . . because it’s also ourselves we’re brutalising.”
Nonetheless, Eileen, who works as a poorly paid editorial assistant for a literary magazine in Dublin, doesn’t come up with any tangible ways of making herself useful to the goal of large-scale societal transformation. She ultimately finds meaning in her personal life, becoming pregnant at the book’s end and deriving a sense of hope for the future from her unborn child and the family she will create with Simon.
“Neither you nor I have any confidence that civilisation as we know it is going to persist beyond our lifetimes,” she says of considering the ethics of procreation. “[But we] have to try either way to build a world [the next generation] can live in.”
Alice is still writing at the story’s conclusion, working on a new book despite her previously cited disbelief in books’ ability to change the world. Felix, presumably, is still working at the Amazon-like warehouse — unless Alice has taken financial responsibility for him, a deus ex machina the rest of us can only dream of.
Ultimately, Beautiful World doesn’t offer any solutions to the mess of twenty-first-century capitalism we find ourselves in, and the characters don’t find any paths of escape. The mistake of their youth, Eileen writes to Alice, is that “we thought we mattered.” They’ve each been disabused of that notion: “me by achieving precisely nothing in over a decade of adult life, and you . . . by achieving as much as you possibly could and still not making one grain of difference to the smooth functioning of the capitalist system.”
Of course, it isn’t the responsibility of fiction to offer political solutions. Nor is it, as Rooney says in a recent Guardian interview, her job to “populate my books with particular types of characters that I imagine other people might find relatable,” a frequent criticism leveled at a novel whose protagonists are, respectively, a famous author and a woman who makes jokes at parties like, “The future is bright for the working class.” Now, as someone who also spends their day “moving commas around” (often in sentences trying to parse just how bright or bleak the working class’s future is) and then breaks down in tears for inconsequential reasons, I am perhaps more likely than most to identify with the characters in this book. But there is something incredibly relatable in the amount of energy the millennials in Beautiful World devote to thinking about the twin problems of global capitalism and their love lives.
People who find political convictions “cringe” would like to dismiss Rooney’s self-identified Marxism and how it allows her to sculpt plots and characters out of material conditions and class dynamics. Some of them believe that only apolitical fiction can be truly literary, or that only writers who toil in highbrow obscurity are worth reading, or that only authors who do not allow their publishing houses to promote their books with branded merchandise should be able to call themselves “anti-capitalist.” These people are wrong. Sally Rooney’s novels, her newest among them, have much to offer readers of all sorts, but particularly those of us who care deeply about society’s pervasive inequality and believe that only a radical reorientation toward socialism can offer hope of solution.
The existential despair and political pessimism epitomized by Beautiful World, Where Are You’s characters are emblematic of the state of the world we all currently inhabit. Our task is to resist them, to push back against the urge to conclude that there’s no point in demanding more and better for ourselves and our loved ones and the people we’ll never meet. To continue loving and caring and being wrapped up in what may seem quotidian, without allowing our knowledge of the exploitation and suffering our daily life rests on to fade into the background. We must embody the contradiction between the political and the personal that comprises this hideous, beautiful world we live in — so that we can continue to fight for a better one.