Beautiful World, Where Are You: Part One

The Part that’s NoT About Sex

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is Sally Rooney’s third novel. Rooney, who is not much older than 30, has become one of the most famous novelists in the world. Her first two novels, ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Normal People’, were both very zeitgeisty: they appeared on the Staff Picks tables at independent bookstores, they topped best seller lists, one was adapted into a TV show. They were the kinds of books that people asked you if had ‘read yet’.

I have read all of Rooney’s books, and in order of their publication. I wasn’t sure what to think after reading ‘Conversations with Friends’, but when I read ‘Normal People’, I gelled into a solid fan. I liked her project, as I understood it. It seemed to me that Rooney was trying to portray human feelings (with all their complexity, ambiguity, and wheel-spinning pointlessness) with flat realism, to treat emotion as just another fact about the world and to describe relationships as though they were not totally subjective.

I actually kind of loved that project, if I’m being honest. Rooney’s tone reminded me of what Hemingway might have sounded like if he were a sober millennial woman (and about 25 IQ points smarter).

‘Beautiful World’ is a little bit of a departure from Rooney’s previous work, although it makes sense to me as a natural extension, a sort of riff, on her first two books. But I have a lot to say about it, so I am going to break this into two parts. In this, the first part, I’d like to give Rooney’s project and prose the attention I think she deserves. In the second part, I’d like to talk about something which is bothering (obsessing?) me: sex.

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is the story (as all of Rooney’s novels are) of two friends: Alice and Eileen. Friends since they were teenagers, Alice and Eileen are now in their twenties. Eileen, who is beautiful and literary, works as a copy editor at a magazine. Alice, who is prickly and complicated, has found international success as a novelist. ‘Beautiful World’ is about these two women, the men that they love, and what happens to their friendship as their paths start to diverge.

If Rooney’s project in her first two books was to talk about feeling as fact, her project in ‘Beautiful World’ is show human relationships without talking about feelings at all. It’s a little weird: the narrative portions of the books are entirely observational. Rooney, as narrator, gives absolutely no information about the internal experience of any of the four main characters.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is a passage from ‘Normal People’:

“He got back into bed besides her and kissed her face. She had been sad before, after the film, but now she was happy. It was in Connell’s power to make her happy. It was something he could just give to her, like money or sex. With other people she seemed so independent and remote, but with Connell she was different, a different person. He was the only one who knew her like that.” (p. 108)

Do you see what I mean when I says she writes feelings as facts? Her emotional assertions are dry, simple, declarative. “She had been sad before…but now she was happy” is as uncontroversial, unqualified, a statement as “She had been 24 before, but now she was 25.” It is not how emotions are usually discussed in literature, where they are usually described rather than asserted.

Compare that to a representative passage in ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’:

“Putting the cloth back in the sink, she said she would make up one of the beds. He looked down at the floor. She came to stand in front of him, and said in a kindly tone of voice: Felix, are you okay? He gave a half-smile. Yeah, I’m sound, he said. Just tired. Finally he met her eyes and said: You don’t want to sleep together, do you? It’s alright if you’ve gone off the idea, I know I was a bit of a prick about it. She looked back at him, her eyes moving over his face. I did feel foolish when I didn’t hear from you, she said. Can you understand why I felt that way or do you think I’m being crazy? Apparently uncomfortable now, he said he didn’t think she was being crazy, and that he had meant to reply to her message, but time had passed and he had started to feel awkward about it.” (p. 184)

If Rooney’s first two books tried to treat our interiority as reportable information, ‘Beautiful World’ tries to remove interiority at all. We are never told how our characters are feeling, what they are thinking – we are only told how they behave.

Sally Rooney

It’s a really interesting approach to take, and I think it would have worked quite nicely, except that Rooney cheated. Each narrative chapter is followed by an epistolary chapter, emails between Alice and Eileen. In my opinion, the decision to add these chapters detracts from the novel rather than adding to it. First of all, it feels as though Rooney didn’t trust herself (or her readers). In the end she isn’t actually content to let her characters’ actions speak for themselves, and so made sure to spell out for us the conclusions she wants us to draw at regular intervals.

But, secondly, the email chapters are unconvincing and, frankly, annoying. They don’t read like actual emails; they feel like authorial explications. They are too long, too verbose. They are essays, and they make both women sound pretentious. Let me give you an example:

“But I think you’re wrong about the instinct for beauty. Human beings lost that when they Berlin Wall came down. I’m not going to get into another argument with you about the Soviet Union, but when it died so did history…Or maybe it was just the end of one civilization, ours, and at some time in the future another will take its place. In that case we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.” (p. 101)

Come the fuck on. I am, myself, a verbose, pretentious millennial woman, but if any of my friends ever sent me that email, I’d never speak to them again. The email chapters aren’t very good – they don’t give us a window into the lives and minds of these two women because they don’t sound like they were written by humans, and anyway wasn’t the point of the novel to not have the window in the first place?

Rooney is a good enough novelist that I would like to allow for the possibility that I am missing something fundamental, but, to me, it feels as though Rooney wanted to try something a little radical, and then had a failure of nerve. I have some sympathy for that, by way: it’s really hard to write about relationships without writing about interiority, and it might have made for a strange, bleak novel. It is totally reasonable that she would have wanted to give her readers some access to her characters; I just don’t think the emails were super successful at that.

But, as for Rooney as a novelist, whatever journey she’s on, I’m with her. The more books she writes, the more interested I am in what she’s trying to do, which, I think, is to really fundamentally find a different way to portray human feeling. It’s a hard project, but a really good one, so I’ll keep riding with her.

Normal People

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: It is ok if I come in your mouth?” (p. 28)

There’s a well-worn bit of folk wisdom, that the body knows what it needs. That if you’re iron-deficient, you’ll develop a sudden, strong hankering for, like, kale. Or if a cold is about to come on and you need the immune boost that vitamin C provides, you’ll suddenly crave oranges. That your body can sense its own mineral needs, and translate these needs into food desires below the level of your consciousness.

Ok, sure. Why not? The body is smart.

I wonder, though, whether there is a similar process to address emotional deficiencies. Whether, when we are hurting, or in deep need of solace or wisdom of a particular kind, our psyches know to reach out and get it, even before we have understood the trouble we are in.

I noticed recently that I have been reading novels. I have been reading basically nothing except novels. This is unusual for me: normally, my non-fiction to fiction ratio is about 1:1.

Weirder still, the novels I am reading are changing. My bookshelves reveal a historical preference: I am, as we have discussed many times, a bit of a traditionalist, and so my shelves are dominated by dead, old, white men (which is coincident with, rather than representative of, my literary values: I don’t think white men are intrinsically better than anyone else – I think they gave themselves an unfair lead). If I were asked to list my favorite authors, not a single living author would crack the top…ten*?

*(Although, in the spirit of answering the query honestly: one of the authors I love the most in world, David Foster Wallace, ought to be alive)

And yet, lately, I have been reading almost exclusively contemporary fiction. Weirdest still, I have been reading almost exclusively fiction written by women.

This is enormously out of character for me, but sometimes the heart knows what it needs better than the head. And I have learned that, when the body craves something, it is probably best to consume it. So I’ve been leaning into my emotional needs and reading whatever strikes my fancy, no matter how contemporary, unvetted, or estrogenic it may be.

A few weeks ago I read Sally Rooney’s debut novel, ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I liked it – I thought it was a strong piece of work, but I didn’t feel nourished by it, particularly. I appreciated it, as an intellectual accomplishment, but I didn’t think that I connected with it, emotionally, at the time.

But I have felt the need to read her second novel, ‘Normal People‘, fairly urgently ever since. Like ‘Conversations with Friends‘, ‘Normal People’ made all the important literary people pee their pants, which of course made me not want to read it, but there was something that kept nagging at me. And so, this week, like someone with an iron-deficiency and a kale salad, I sat down and read ‘Normal People’ in one sitting.

Normal People‘ is the story of Connell and Marianne. Connell and Marianne know each other from school – Marianne is rich and unpopular; intensely smart and traumatized by a deeply fucked up family, she moves through the world almost totally alone. Connell is the son of her family’s housekeeper. He is popular and handsome; also smart, he is kind and everyone likes him.

In the afternoons when Connell comes to pick up his mother from Marianne’s house, he and Marianne will form a relationship that is both intense and secret. Her profound unpopularity makes Connell ashamed of her, an unkindness he will not really understand until they go off to Trinity together. There, as Marianne becomes popular and sought-after, and Connell is handicapped for the first time by his shyness and working-class background, both of them will try to discover if they love each other and whether they can be happy.

Conversations with Friends‘ is, at the end of the day, a story about friendship. It is a love story, but it’s about how love hides in friendship. ‘Normal People‘ is a love story, a story about great and transformative love. But it is written in the same spare-and-yet-unsparing style as ‘Conversations with Friends’, which makes it feel disorienting and scary and painful, sort of like being in love.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I find Rooney’s writing extremely effective. I thought at first that her severe lack of style was a little over-stylized (if that makes sense), but I’m completely on board now. The lack of authorial voice forces you into the perspective of the character, right up against them. It’s forgiving and present. Which is a particular accomplishment because ‘Normal People‘ alternately takes the perspective of both of its main characters.

I think it really comes down to why people read novels in the first place.

There are many valid reasons to read novels. People read them to be entertained, or because they are assigned them in school, or to make themselves seem smart.

But why do people read novels like this, as adults, when no one is watching? I think, and maybe I am only speaking for myself, that people read novels to learn about how other people feel, to understand their own feelings, to learn whether their own feelings are normal, to make sense of the world around them, to try to see the world through other people’s eyes and to see whether they are, in fact, part of a common humanity. They read them to see the great range of human emotional possibility, and to fit themselves within that range. They are maps for our hearts.

Sally Rooney

Which doesn’t mean that goodness doesn’t matter. I’m not sure that writerly skill necessarily makes a novel more emotionally effective – in fact, it’s often inversely correlated (Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Dickens, so many of the great writers leave people cold) – but when a well-written novel is emotionally effective, the two qualities become greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s what happened with ‘Normal People‘. The brutal bluntness of the prose, the unflinching eye Rooney uses to examine her characters, the keen ear she has for the subtleties of complex and contradictory human emotions, all combine to make her novels an immersive and moving experience.

I think I understand why I needed to read ‘Normal People‘ right now. ‘Normal People’ is about whether or not broken people can be loved, and that is a question I’ve spent a lot of my life asking. And it is the question I’ve spent most of the last year obsessing over.

I think that ‘Normal People‘ is a probably a great novel, but I’m not really in a position to judge because the only thing that I can think about is how it was exactly what I needed. I’m used to thinking about whether or not books are good; I am used to connecting with them intellectually. I don’t usually just let novels happen to me.

And, of course, ‘Normal People‘ didn’t answer any questions, and didn’t solve any problems. I don’t think that was the point. And I didn’t feel better per se, but I did feel more connected. More normal.