Beautiful World, Where Are You
by Sally Rooney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 368 pp.
In the first few pages of Beautiful World, Where Are You, two of the lead characters discuss whether one should love one’s job. The scene, a first date subtly shaded with class difference, is Sally Rooney at her best—portraying all the little ways that people hurt and confuse each other, even when they don’t want to, and leave conversations unsure as to what just happened.
Her characters’ state of being, of trying to figure out the plural of “apocalypse” from a relatively safe position in the Global North, is one of frustration, concealed grief, and quiet desperation. Across her three wildly popular novels, they grapple with their comparative privilege, grasp for relief through heterosexual love, and screw up, repeatedly, tiny mistakes that add up to heartbreak. The struggle to adapt to the collapsed promises of neoliberal Ireland is Rooney’s subject matter, shown almost entirely through the lens of intimate interpersonal conflict.
When Felix, who works in a warehouse, explains to Alice, a successful young novelist whom we would be forgiven for reading as the author’s alter ego, what he does, we cringe, knowing how the conversation is going to go. “Don’t you like it, then?” Alice asks. “Jesus no, he said. I fucking hate the place. But they wouldn’t be paying me to do something I liked, would they?” Alice has no answer in the moment, though at different points she will profess to both love and loathe her own job: the writing, the promotion, the travel, and the novels themselves. Felix has called the question in the very beginning of the book, but it will continue to unsettle.
Unfortunately, Beautiful World tends to turn away from such uncomfortable questions. And this is why it fails to hang together the way Rooney’s earlier two novels did. What was understandable in characters who were just moving into adulthood is grating in adults who are thirtyish, and the tricks she uses to structure the novel, the attempt to tell the story exclusively through outward description as if the reader is a fly on the wall, don’t so much leave holes as never connect. In her first (and perhaps best) novel, Conversations with Friends, her protagonists were little monsters out to devour the world and anyone who got in their path. Alice and her friends are older, but not much more mature. Their only grandiosity is in their self-pity.
Millennials are caught in suspended animation, so it makes perfect sense that Rooney’s characters and their endless, partly self-inflicted stuckness strike a chord with readers, particularly younger ones. (Beautiful World is already the most-reviewed book in recent years.) The world of their parents has disappeared. The jobs available for someone like Felix, who presumably has no degree, consist of working in a bar or a warehouse. For the university-educated, the jobs might carry more social capital, but aside from a lucky few like Alice, the pay is terrible and the conditions exhausting.
When, toward the end of the novel, Felix finally meets Alice’s Dublin friends, Eileen and Simon, who’ve come to visit her in his small hometown, where she is recovering from what she describes as a “psychiatric breakdown,” he is stunned to find out that he makes more money in the warehouse than Eileen does at the literary magazine where she is an editor. Gesturing back to that opening scene, he asks, “Anyway, you probably like your job, do you?” Eileen’s response: “She moved her head from side to side uncertainly, and then said: I don’t hate it.” “That’s where we’re different,” Felix says.
Eileen has, by this point in the novel, already declared herself a communist at a Dublin party, argued about the nature of the working class, and made a case for her own spot in it. It’s an echo of a dispute that has roiled the left in recent years: Is the working class anyone who works for a living and does not own the means of production or much else besides? Or is it, as Eileen’s villainous foil argues, “an identity” to be used by politicians to advance various cultural conservatisms?
This question would have more weight if the book was actually interested in organizing, but instead, class struggle is presented as just one more thing to be debated. (Rooney’s own career began with a personal essay she wrote about her time as a champion debater.) Felix’s job is an obligation to be endured; the possibility that anything could be done about it, or even that he might have something to say about the futility of arguments about class, is never entertained. Instead, we get brief descriptions of his mind-numbing days, contrasted with Alice’s less physically hazardous work, mind-numbing in its own way. Rooney’s attempt to write a novel mostly made up of outward descriptions works best in these moments, when the characters move like automatons through their lives.
But her decision not to show us an interior world means that we know little about what Felix thinks, and the choice to make him the least likely character to talk about politics is as much of a statement about the working class as any argument the more literary characters have with one another. When Felix does show anger at his miserable job, it spills out instead in conflict with Alice. “Fuck me,” he explodes at one point, “Why do I always feel like you’re the boss and I just have to do what you tell me?” He enacts little class vengeances in the bedroom and then haltingly explains the way work alienates him from himself: “the difference between what we’re doing right now and what I do all day, I actually can’t describe. It’s hard to believe I have to use the same body for both things.” Alice’s breakdown, meanwhile, is the alienation of the brain and heart worker, her psyche simply refusing to work anymore. In both cases, their suffering remains deeply individualized.
The only way these characters can envision politics is as something to talk about on the internet—and indeed, the central device of Beautiful World is a series of emails between Alice and Eileen, which read more like Tumblr posts from the mid-2000s than anything an adult would write to someone she loves. Even the one character who “does” politics—Simon works as a policy adviser for an unnamed “left-wing parliamentary group”—seems to experience it mostly as another form of grim labor.
The work that the novel does deem important, though ambivalently, is writing itself. The emails between Alice and Eileen feel like Rooney hashing out a response to her critics. Alice writes of her “extraordinary privilege” and how making a living as a novelist is “definitionally useless” (something that no Marxist, which Rooney and her leads profess to be, actually believes). She describes her writing as “like a love affair, or an infatuation, except that it only involved myself and it was all within my own control.”
The book touches on a truth about the misery of work in this moment, of the way it all—brain work and body work and heart work—can feel like fiddling while the planet burns. It captures the claustrophobia of manual labor and the frustrations of a political career and the fleeting pleasures of creative work. And yet Rooney does not assemble these pieces into a story that goes anywhere. Instead, Alice’s emails congeal into a justification of her inability to imagine a political life: “To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the ‘main characters’ of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful.” That Alice, and perhaps Rooney, cannot conceive of those millions of people as “main characters,” some living right there in Ireland—cannot think of them as people who love and hurt and rage and fight and fuck—is part of what makes this novel at times feel paper-thin.
Rooney’s main focus in Beautiful World, the heterosexual couple form, is a perfectly good subject for a modern novel. We are, after all, in a period when heterosexuality is beset from all sides. The economic relationships it was embedded in for the last couple of centuries are crumbling. The stresses of COVID-19 isolation piled on top of the already individualizing demands of neoliberalism have left couples desperate to compensate for a care shortage. These conditions have given new salience to necessary critiques from feminists, radical queer thinkers, and a generation of young people less attached to binary gender than ever before.
Yet Rooney seems apologetic for taking the couple as her motif, rather than diving into the chaos and reveling in the smoking ruins. Her greatest skill is showing us the weight that small misunderstandings can carry; her greatest flaw is her inability to imagine anything more.
Rooney, as literature scholar Gloria Fisk has noted, has compared her own work to the nineteenth-century novel, in which the marriage plot was central. Patriarchal culture and heterosexuality have changed, of course, and are changing still. They haven’t been “solved,” but it is impossible to look out at the landscape of sex and romance in 2021 and see the same patriarchy that trapped Jane Austen’s characters in want of a man. Yet Rooney’s characters still turn back to the same individual solution: fall in love, solve your problems.
The characters in Beautiful World often seem embarrassed by their desires. To express their apparently unironic idea of happiness—a baby and “a little terraced house somewhere in the Liberties . . . with crayon on the wallpaper and Lego bricks all over the floor”—Eileen and Simon literally treat marriage as a kink. Their phone sex while he’s on a work trip begins with Eileen telling Simon, her friend since childhood, that he needs “a little wife.” She proceeds, in detail, to describe this fantasy marriage, layered in distance and pausing occasionally to remind him that she’d never, ever want such a thing. Later, during sex, Eileen says, “Sometimes I wish I was your wife,” and Simon seems to take it as another gesture of play rather than something serious that neither of them can really admit they want.
In her emails with Eileen, Alice also expresses nostalgia for “traditional marriage,” noting that it was “obviously not fit for purpose, and almost ubiquitously ended in one kind of failure or another, but at least it was an effort at something, and not just a sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life.” She continues: “But when we tore down what confined us, what did we have in mind to replace it?”
Of course, many options have been floated to replace the kind of patriarchal heterosexuality that “we” tore down. And both Alice and Felix profess their bisexuality. But in this novel, queerness, like politics, is claimed verbally yet never acted upon. A touch of the wrist—admittedly one of the novel’s sexiest moments—has to stand in for a whole world of possibility that does not make it onto the page.
The characters treat friendship, too, with a level of ambivalence; Alice, thrilled that her friends have come to visit even though she has spent the entire novel pushing them away, cannot tell them how she feels about them. She and Eileen fail to see how they have created their own misery, because the world has created so much misery for them. That their friendship could provide an alternative to the marriage plot seems not to occur to them.
Rooney’s characters feel familiar because all sorts of women (and others) have found ourselves wondering what love looks like when the economic arrangements that supported the nuclear family have fallen apart; when care is increasingly found on the marketplace but still expected to come through marriage and children; when fascists, as novelist and critic Jordy Rosenberg has written, are harvesting the energy of the family’s collapse. As the base that heterosexuality was built on crumbles, we cling to the superstructure as the only way to be looked after in a heartless and very unbeautiful world. But we need to do better than turning tradwifery into one more kink option on the menu of your favorite dating app.
Alice and Felix, naturally, do meet on an app. How else would they? These platforms are now the way we are expected to experience each other, trying another human on for size. Dating apps are designed to build a buffer against wanting too much or too specifically, to create both the appearance of abundance and the feeling of scarcity to keep users swiping. And yet all these characters’ sexual fantasies, their deepest, darkest desires, which they confess to one another shamefaced late at night in bed, are to be really wanted, not just accepted as the result of a night’s flirting or an internet date. “A lot, not just a normal amount,” Alice clarifies to Felix in an Italian hotel room before turning her face into the pillow while he strokes her skin. Neoliberalism has commanded us to want things, but the things these characters are supposed to want (other than Felix, who we never really see wanting much of anything except, eventually, begrudgingly, Alice) have failed them: the novel-writing, the political career, the literary job, even their looks. The very idea of wanting has dried up, so they cast around for the people who might want them.
During the pandemic, the characters disappear into heterosexuality, as so many people did. If the other option was solitary confinement, who wouldn’t choose partnership? Yet in Felix’s unromantic declaration of love we are left with the uncomfortable reminder that this too is a foreclosed choice; it starts with the realization that Alice would be upset about his work injury. “Say you were above in your house on your own and you weren’t feeling well, or you hurt yourself or something, I would want to know about it. And if you wanted me to come up and look after you, I would. And I’m sure you’d do the same. Is that not enough to be going on with?” Felix is gesturing to something real: we are all trapped in a moment when care has been thoroughly privatized and the hidden injuries of class are becoming less hidden. Marriage is, after all, not just another kink.
It is unsurprising to me, but perhaps unintentional, that Simon, the one who is best at loving and most honest about what he wants, is also the only character who has figured out a way to actually live a political life. He admits he did so because “I didn’t want to be alone.” That little detail, like so many of the novel’s most poignant moments, drops away, never to return. The idea that love must be counterposed to “more important things we should be doing” dominates the book. No one but Simon ever seems to understand that we could do political work precisely because we love one another.
It is unfair to criticize books for what they aren’t, and yet as I was reading, I couldn’t help but keep returning to what I felt was missing from Beautiful World. For a Marxist whose characters make jokes about being “undialectical,” Rooney is curiously hesitant to put any real political struggle on the page. Critics often flatten Rooney’s Irishness into a generic Western whiteness, and her books sometimes seem complicit in this, lacking as they are in any sort of specificity about Irish politics. And yet Ireland in the last decade has bloomed with struggle amid successive crises, anniversaries, referenda, and hung parliaments. The possibility of a hard border returning to Ireland thanks to the UK’s Brexit vote is just the latest in a series of events that Rooney’s characters seem indifferent to.
The politics of intimate life itself have played out in public in Ireland in recent years, first with 2015’s marriage equality referendum and then the even more explosive—and resounding—decision to repeal the country’s longstanding abortion ban. Canvassers pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, and told strangers their deeply personal stories; “Repeal” jumpers became the fashion statement du jour.
In a 2019 interview, Rooney suggested that political conversations would bore her audience. When asked about turning Normal People into a TV series, she said, “On the page, you can just say stuff like, ‘They had a discussion about Ronald Reagan.’ But you can’t say that on the TV, unless you’re actually going to write that discussion. And you probably don’t want to make the viewers sit through a five-minute discussion about the Reagan administration.” But her blank descriptions of politics sound jarring. “Two of them read from work dealing with personal crises, such as loss and illness,” she writes about a literary event, “while one addressed themes of political extremism.” Which extremism? A later party scene stretches the process to the point of hilarity; characters keep discussing “the same political controversy Eileen had discussed with her father the evening before” across several pages, without ever explaining what the controversy was. At best it’s a lazy choice, at worst a cowardly one.
I do not mean to insist that there is nothing political in the depictions of everyday life, or that a Marxist must write didactic, revolutionary prose. I will spare you the Trotsky quotation and will stand with the many critics who find plenty of politics in George Eliot’s drawing rooms. But as critic Jordan Alexander Stein noted of Conversations with Friends and Normal People, “Rooney’s supposed update of the Victorian novel entails a narrowing of the scope and accomplishment of the Victorian novel’s project.” The characters gesture at the wider world only to retreat from it and return to their own musings.
Rooney’s characters treat politics as something that happens to other people. At best, Eileen and Alice see it as a series of abstract arguments online, and they obliquely blame the internet for their own inability to figure out how to “be helpful in some way to the project, whatever it is.” Eileen wonders if “serious political action is still possible, which I think at this point is an open question,” and assumes “maybe it won’t involve people like us.” Yet unless these women live in a science fiction version of Ireland, they have been surrounded by “serious political action,” and they stroll the streets of a city where you can still touch the bullet holes of a revolution only slightly over a century old.
In interviews, Rooney also seems unable to imagine being “in the struggle.” even at one point describing politics as relating to bees. In 2019, she said, “We’re very much still at the stage where things are going horribly wrong, and there hasn’t been any sort of mass uprising.” Who, then, were the tens of thousands who, just a couple of years before, marched across Ireland against austerity and new water charges? Who are the actual people who’ve made small Marxist parliamentary parties like People Before Profit a reality, and won seats across the thirty-two counties of Ireland? Who were the thousands of primarily women canvassers for Repeal?
Rooney’s statements about politics became even more confusing when, after the publication of Beautiful World, she did step up to a political issue by refusing to sell Hebrew translation rights to a particular Israeli publisher, citing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. On the one hand, she made a forthright statement: “I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions,” she wrote, in “solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality.” On the other hand, that statement came only after some journalists decided to make a meal out of her refusal and accuse her of anti-Semitism. Perhaps if they had not done so, it would have been a quiet, personal boycott. One can imagine how it would be glossed in Beautiful World: “Alice refused to be published in a country with a lot of political controversy.”
Political actors, from Palestinians organizing boycotts and strikes to the Irish rebels of both the recent and more distant past, are not, as Eileen assumes in Beautiful World, people who had “ascend[ed] to some higher plane of being” and ceased to care about their “own families, friends, lovers, and so on.” Covering the abortion referendum, I met women who had never told anyone about their abortions before, canvassing with family members who had only just revealed the truth to them as well. They found beauty and love and joy in the struggle. When the exit poll declared that 68 percent of Ireland had voted for legal abortion, they screamed and cried and celebrated. They organize now, day by day, for an end to austerity, for fairness for refugees, for better healthcare, for a united Ireland. They still live, love, marry, divorce, have babies, cry, drink, and even read novels.
Rooney’s characters see love as something that is in opposition to politics, but I want to suggest that it is in fact because we “loved each other too much and found each other too interesting,” as Rooney puts it, that so many of us get involved in politics to begin with. As no less complicated a figure than George Orwell wrote, “Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step.”
Alice echoes this declaration in her final email to Eileen: “We spend our lives trying to know that difference [between right and wrong] and to live by it, trying to love other people instead of hating them, and there is nothing else that matters on the earth.”
What is socialism, after all, but the belief that other people are what matters, and the attempt to remake the world along those principles?
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. She is co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.