Literary fame, when it comes early, can completely overwhelm.
In Sally Rooney's new book Beautiful World, Where Are You, a young Irish writer struggles with the complications of sudden, intrusive global celebrity in a story that will often make you wonder if it's the character or the author who's speaking.
2020 was a banner year for Sally Rooney, if not exactly for the world. The six-part TV adaptation of her second novel Normal People was critically acclaimed and later won awards for its breakout star Paul Mescal.
Rooney, who hails from Castlebar, County Mayo became that rare thing, a globally celebrated young novelist before 30. Worse, she made some serious money. Taken together, that spells imminent backlash and it arrived right on cue.
“Her characters are dull, conceited and self-involved,” groused some critics. “She isn't nearly as progressive or leftist as she imagines,” chimed in others. “Her sexual politics are old hat.” These were among the kinder remarks.
But it does something to you, to be breathlessly feted and celebrated and described as “the voice of your generation,” and Rooney herself would be the first to admit it. In fact, I suspect she actually does admit it in her new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, which tells of a young writer who achieves early fame and riches and suffers a nervous breakdown over it (and the pressure to produce an equally feted follow up).
Who in their right mind would welcome the scrutiny that falls on modern celebrities, her character Alice, a celebrated young writer, asks in the new book. No one who lives inside a celebrity bubble is even in their right mind she continues, and what does it say about us that we even follow their doings?
Rooney, in her carefully selected interviews, has avowed that she is not a character in her latest novel and whether you believe or disbelieve her isn't particularly important. She has so many interesting things to say about the challenging business of writing in an age as divided and dangerous as our own, and she says them in a book that is so compellingly written, you won't care where the line between fact and fiction starts or ends.
Set in Ireland, the east coast and the west, Beautiful World, Where Are You begins with one of the most recognizable social rituals of our times, a Tinder date. Into a hotel walks Felix (happiness?) who glances around until he spots Alice, the young woman who quickly tells him she's a writer.
Felix works in an Amazon-like order fulfillment center. He has an awkward but intriguing first meeting with Alice, where it becomes clear that there is more to both of them than meets the eye. They also have a spiky connection that makes them (and the reader) want to know more.
This isn't Connell and Marianne part two, it's a flinty and funny semi disaster in the making that Rooney writes so well that you can practically see them. Her understanding of Irish courtships and Irish people is so intimate and effortless that I found myself quickly investing in their potential union. When two people are this awkward together, they seem star-crossed to me.
In the new book, Rooney returns again and again to the themes and places she knows intimately: Dublin college life, rural Ireland, class tensions, gifted protagonists, anxiety, and even utter dread about the future. Clearly these are themes that resonate if the hour-long line to purchase her latest novel in Dublin is any indication.
Those themes come even more to the fore in Beautiful World, Where Are You and we get our first real look at Rooney's real-world preoccupations, which, depending on your point of view, are urgent and convincing or the vain twitterings of a privileged Trinity dilettante (believe me, she's heard both takes).
But as it skips along, the structure skips between protagonists to the long, leisurely emails the two (female) best friends at the books center write to each other, where it soon becomes clear that this isn't quite the young people stepping into themselves narratives that animated Normal People and Conversations With Friends.
The simple answer to that change is that Rooney has moved on and grown up a bit herself, she's 30 now, but the coming of age storylines that made the first two books so hypnotic to so many readers now share time with the concerns that were hinted at in the first two books but are foregrounded in Beautiful World, Where Are You.
And what concerns they are. Part of the trick of this novel – and it is quite a trick – is how much of modern life is scrutinized and commented on as four people go about their romantic relations and professional lives (the most convincing part of the book is the fierce female friendship between Alice and her less financially successful but equally brilliant friend Eileen).
Rooney regrets, rhapsodizes, and frets throughout this brilliant, funny, and wise beyond its years book, creating characters that seem as real and dimensional as the people you know.
What's the point of creating art or culture in a world that seems one step away from climate catastrophe and political breakdown, where two-thirds of us labor in abject poverty to prop up the lifestyles and consumption of the increasingly tottering first world the book asks?
But the book is a gentle, very gentle, rejoinder that human connection, conversations with friends, people finding each other - and themselves through each other – and is actually the business of culture and its first aim.
Rooney has seen the value of her newfound celebrity (insofar as it goes) and has the grounding and the support to understand that it really doesn't go all that far. With Alice truly grappling in the book with the unwanted attention and scrutiny that comes with sudden success, Rooney places a sensible bookmark between herself and her own fame too.
The poet Phillip Larkin once wrote that “all that remains of us is love,” and that idea haunts the pages of the serious, subtle novel. Friendship is elevated, as are romantic connections and all of this Rooney reminds us is serious stuff because ultimately we will stand or fall by it.
The real love affair of this book is between the two platonic friends, Alice and Eileen, and the book gives us a deep appreciation to their concerns, outlooks, hopes, fears and intellectual brilliance.
There are false notes, too. Sexual politics in Rooney's books can be of a decidedly regressive or even awkwardly performative nature, and the structure of the email exchanges also seems like a cheat to convey a lot with a little.
There is also the lost Smiths album name of the novel itself, which sounds like Morrissey at his most dyspeptic, which is saying a lot. The book is really on its surest ground when Rooney is on hers, contemplating the many ways that we connect and matter to each other.
She is only getting started, in other words. The early appreciation of her output was entirely warranted and the proof is delivered again in this deeper, sadder, funnier new book that will remind you as it reminds the author, why she writes and why we read her.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is now on sale from (FSG) $28.00.
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