Sally Rooney's books seem to create the same sort of polarisation among readers as Infinite Jest (by David Foster Wallace), The Fountainhead (by Ayn Rand), The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho) and Catcher in the Rye (by JD Salinger): you're either a devotee or a hater, there appears to be no middle ground. Some claim that her books are steeped in white privilege, that their politics are shallow and barely reflective of the author's own (she has described herself as a Marxist), that her writing style is spare, even banal. While for others, her novels are zeitgeist seizing, offering a ringside view of the angsty, performative world of late millennials in prose that has the terse brilliance of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver.
Her latest offering, Beautiful World, Where Are You, tells the story of four friends—Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon, all of whom seem to be grappling with some version of despair. Alice, a best-selling novelist (like Rooney) who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and appears to be going through a self-actualisation crisis of sorts, is living by the sea in Mayo, in Ireland, trying her best to recover. There she meets Felix, a warehouse worker, on a dating app and decides (puzzlingly, I must admit) to fall in love with him. Eileen, back in Dublin, works with a literary magazine and is engaged in an on-off coupling with her childhood hero, Simon, a political advisor.
The story primarily exists in a braided narrative, the Alice-Felix and Eileen-Simon romance unfurling separately, for the most part, punctuated by several highly entertaining epistolary interludes between Alice and Eileen. In these emails, bursting with ruminations about politics, capitalism, the pointlessness of fiction, the brokenness of the world, city planning, lost writing systems and the existence of God, among other things, Rooney seems to take her detractors head-on. "The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth," Alice writes in an email to Eileen. According to her, the novel works by suppressing the world's truth, ensuring that the only thing a reader ends up caring about is whether people break up or stay together. "My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard," she writes.
These self-depreciatory, freewheeling exchanges are the best parts of the novel, barring the exquisite sex scenes. Strictly heterosexual, yes, but they manage to capture the fumbling tenderness of intimacy with startling authenticity, replete with kink, conversation and role-play. For the most part, however, Rooney sticks to an almost impersonal prose style that shows, camera-like, what happens in her characters' worlds without really excavating their inner lives. Perhaps this is where her Marxist sensibilities come in: the self in Rooney's books always stems from the collective. Her characters barely exist as individuals; it is their interactions with the other that really matter to the narrative.
Like all her other novels, Beautiful World, Where Are You reads like the offspring of what is derogatorily known as chick-lit and the classic bildungsroman, with some Wikipedia pages grafted on. The narrative catapults you straight into Rooney's characters' lives, ordinary, even predictable, ones enlivened by erudite conversation and old-fashioned romance. Lives that, in many ways, resemble your own, of any millennial woman of a certain sort really, even one sitting five thousand miles away. Reading Rooney leaves you with a strong sense of rendezvous as she hopscotches from one familiar situation to another: the disappointment of a first date; intense conversations with a best friend or lover; that relationship (or two) based on convenience and availability rather than abiding passion; the persistent unshakeable sense of angst and inadequacy, of never being good enough; the despair of living in a slowly-decaying world, the degradation hastened by the reactionaries who manage it.
Much of the adverse criticism of Rooney's work, to my mind, stems from the expectation that any book written by people whose histories have been shaped by invasion and imperialism must always be a sort of national allegory, a somewhat reductionist way of looking at fiction. Also, unlike other contemporary Irish novelists like Anna Burns, Naoise Dolan, Tana French or even Marian Keyes, Rooney's characters wear their Irishness very lightly. Instead, they belong to a particular millennial subculture that stretches across many big cities in the world—London, Delhi, New York, Dublin--connected by Instagram, token wokeism, complex identities and intense self-awareness. To read Rooney is to plunge head-first into that world—yes, one of a certain privilege, dazzling cerebrality, even decadence—but a rollicking read nevertheless.