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Beautiful World, Where Are You

December 1, 2021

Rohan’s review of Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where are You is what finally decided me about reading it, particularly what she says about the emails between the two main characters which comprise a lot of the novel: “the emails are an experiment in fictionalizing an examined contemporary life. They made me think about how much we—or at least I—don’t talk about, even with those closest to us.”

I found that the charms of this novel lie in the extremely subtle teasing-out of particular attitudes that may give meaning to one individual’s life but not another’s. At first I thought those attitudes were generational, with the twenty-something characters depicted as dismissing their parents’ generation as having few feelings, while they themselves feel things deeply. But after thinking about it (and talking about it with my twenty-something daughter), the seemingly generational attitudes are part of the subtlety. For example, in a conversation with her mother when Eileen was 23 and her mother was 51, Eileen looks at her mother crying and says “I really care that you’re unhappy, I just don’t know what you want me to do.” She goes on to ask “what outcome do you want here?” and adds “I can’t give you money. I can’t go back in time and make you marry a different man. You want me to listen to you complaining about it? I’ll listen. I am listening. But I’m not sure why you think your unhappiness is more important than mine.” Except for her last sentence– which seems to be the kind of gratuitous verbal punch we throw at our loved ones during an argument–Eileen’s response teases out the truth, that there really are only two options in such a conversation.

Her teasing out of subtle truths would be more successful, though, if Eileen didn’t routinely generalize about anyone older than she is: “remembering is weaker than experiencing. Maybe that’s why middle-aged people always think their thoughts and feelings are more important than those of young people, because they can only weakly remember the feelings of their youth while allowing their present experiences to dominate their life outlook.”

It would also be more successful if Eileen knew more about modern culture, so she could put things in context. “My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence,” she says earnestly, picking a date almost a decade after the film The Graduate came out, with its derogatory use of the word “plastics” to mean a cheap, sterile, ugly, and meaningless way of life, the embodiment of everything the main character, Benjamin, loathes about the values of the older generation.

As the novel goes on, Eileen has oddly unemotional conversations with her friend Alice and the boy next door, Simon, who she will have sex with but can’t imagine a future with. Alice has similar conversations with the guy she’s hooked up with, Felix. All the characters seem to have a lack of affect and very little sense of humor or perspective. Alice worries about buying lunch at a convenience shop because she thinks that she should feel more guilty about “the various brands of soft drinks in plastic bottles and all the prepackaged lunch deals and confectionery in sealed bags and store-baked pastries—this is it, the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the backbreaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations.”

Eileen worries about “living in a period of historical crisis,” saying that “I think even some of the more ‘suppressed’ structural symptoms, like the mass drowning of refugees and the repeated weather disasters triggered by climate change, are beginning to be understood as manifestations of a political crisis. And I believe studies show that in the last couple of years, people have been spending a lot more time reading the news and learning about current affairs. It has become normal in my life, for example, to send text messages like the following: Tillerson out at state Imaoooo.”

There is one moment of perspective—almost humor—when Alice says in an email that “the problem with museums like the d’Orsay…is that there’s far too much art, so that no matter how well you plan your route or how noble your intentions, you will always find yourself walking irritably past priceless works of profound genius looking for the bathrooms.”

There’s a good amount of musing over religion, which I think reaches its culmination in what Alice says about celebrity culture after an interviewer reports that Felix has never read her books and a popular tweet responded “this is tragic…she deserves better.” Alice says that this is
“an example of someone who genuinely believes that because she has seen my photograph and read my novels, she knows me personally—and in fact knows better than I do what is best for my life. And it’s normal! It’s normal for her not only to think these bizarre thoughts privately, but to express the in public, and receive positive feedback and attention as a result. She has no idea that she is, in this small limited respect, quite literally insane, because everyone around her is also insane in exactly the same way. They really cannot tell the difference between someone they have heard of, and someone they personally know. And they believe that the feelings they have about this person they imagine me to be—intimacy, resentment, hatred, pity—are as real as the feelings they have about their own friends. It makes we wonder whether celebrity culture has sort of metastasized to fill the emptiness left by religion. A sort of malignant growth where the sacred used to be.”

Both Alice and Eileen believe that “people our age used to get married and have children and conduct love affairs, and now everyone is still single at thirty and lives with housemates they never see.” I think this is a common belief among the generation of my adult children—they have the idea that their parents were “settled” in some essential way at the age of thirty, while I remember that most of us were still living in rentals with housemates, both married and single, with a few pieces of second-hand furniture and bookshelves made from pine boards and concrete blocks. Where did the belief come from, that previous generations committed to marriage and children and owned lots of stuff by the age of 30? I wonder if it comes from photos on social media, where we see how the wealthy live and are inspired to want what they have.

As Alice and Eileen keep writing to each other about what use it might be to write and to go on living, eventually Eileen proposes that “maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice, reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganizing the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting.”

When Eileen and Alice finally meet in person, with Simon and Felix, things start to work themselves out, because if there’s one thing we’ve all learned during the pandemic it’s that being connected is not the same as talking and seeing each other in person. At the moment they meet, the narrator asks “were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world?”

What all the earnestness finally comes to is Alice’s realization that her novels don’t have to solve the problems of the world and Eileen’s similar realization that the way she lives her life doesn’t have to satisfy anyone else’s expectations. It’s much ado over nothing, minus the humor. But I found it worth reading for the subtle distinctions and observations, and for the way it made me understand my childrens’ generation a little more.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2021 7:02 am

    Ha, I was just bitching to my friend about how much I hate generalizations about generations. Although it is statistically true that earlier generations got married earlier and oftener!

    I actually didn’t know a lot of this book was emails, which makes me a bit interested in it, but perhaps still not very?

    • December 5, 2021 8:22 am

      We were married when we shared a townhouse in suburban Maryland with our friend Miriam, who was single, so we could afford to live there. I know some places have laws against house sharing but more young people might think about it, as it’s a nice solution to an old problem.
      The emails do make the minutely examined life more plausible than dialogue could.

  2. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    December 1, 2021 5:43 pm

    I found your comments on the novel so interesting! You are so right about the weigh these exchanges highlight varieties of intergenerational obtuseness. It’s an odd novel in so many ways, and you’re right that it is very short on humor, but novels about conspicuously *thinking* people seem relatively rare to me, so I was willing to go along and found it rewarding.

  3. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    December 1, 2021 5:44 pm

    Something weird went on between my brain and my fingers with that “weigh”!

    • December 5, 2021 8:27 am

      Maybe you were thinking about the way the novel weighs various issues? I did like the way all the extremely detailed thinking is teased out, to be explored and analyzed.

  4. January 9, 2022 7:59 am

    Thank you. I am increasing my appreciation more for how Rooney did this; the decisions she made in writing it. “…all the extremely detailed thinking is teased out, to be explored and analyzed.”

    Per that quote about art museums: it made me think of the Corcoran Gallery in DC, a perfectly-sized art museum, in my opinion. This book also had me googling all the art references and fictional characters.

    • January 9, 2022 11:26 am

      When we lived in the suburbs of DC (when I was in grad school at U of MD College Park) we got to experience the Smithsonian art museums one or two rooms at a time, which is about all we can take before our eyes glaze over and we start walking past masterpieces. It was wonderful. We didn’t mind doing just a little of the museum because the Smithsonian is free, so we could come back whenever we had time for the next bit.

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