Learning about life’s complexities and religion through writing

Sally Rooney's new, much-anticipated novel Beautiful World, Where Are You is just as irresistible as her previous work, yet much more frustrating.

   CHRIST CHURCH  Cathedral Dublin.  The book explores  a range of religious,  philosophical and  sociological questions  of a writer in Ireland (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
CHRIST CHURCH Cathedral Dublin. The book explores a range of religious, philosophical and sociological questions of a writer in Ireland
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The 30-year-old Irish author Sally Rooney is one of the best-known names in contemporary literary fiction, after the smash success of her novels Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018). Both contain a compelling mix of quick dialogue, erotica, and political-philosophical musings.

Rooney applied the same formula in her new, much-anticipated novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, which is just as irresistible as her previous work, yet much more frustrating.

It’s never a good idea to assume a novel is autobiographical, but it’s difficult to not see Beautiful World’s protagonist, Alice Kelleher, as a stand-in for Rooney. She’s the same age, has written two very successful novels, and spent a year in New York City (where Rooney was a Fellow of the New York Public Library in 2019) before returning to Ireland to recover from the whirlwind of fame. Now, ensconced in a big seaside house she leaves only for literary events abroad, she’s burned out, cynical, and lonely. Apparently, Alice was hospitalized for some sort of nervous breakdown.

Structurally, the novel alternates from emails between Alice and her best friend, Eileen, whose voices sound the same, and scenes about them narrated in a flat third-person. In the emails, they critique the social and environmental havoc wreaked by our consumerist culture, naïvely lament the fall of the USSR, debate the merit of aesthetics, and talk about their love lives. While Alice has achieved literary stardom, Eileen is an editor at a literary journal in Dublin and has published a single essay. Alice is hyper-aware of her fortune and privilege, and yet she spends most of her emails complaining.

Ridiculously, she complains about the “current system of literary production,” whatever that is, and about the authors she’s met, concluding “they know nothing about real life,” as if that’s true. She complains about “the problem of the contemporary Euro-American novel,” as if such a problem existed, claiming it “relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth.” That is, billions of people exploited by rapacious capitalism live in desperate poverty, and “bougie” authors have the gall to write about sex and friendship.

Alice admits that her own work is “the worst culprit in this regard,” finds it “morally and politically worthless,” and feels guilty for not writing more political novels. But she seems unaware that, as Orhan Pamuk wrote in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, “The art of the novel becomes political not when the author expresses political views, but when we make an effort to understand someone who is different from us in terms of cultures, class, and gender. This means feeling compassion before passing ethical, cultural, or political judgment.”

Equally frustrating are Alice’s and Eileen’s romantic relationships, which are totally pathetic. In the first chapter, Alice begins dating Felix, a philistine who works at a warehouse and is a complete schmuck. At one point, he ghosts her after she takes him to Rome. At another, he cancels dinner plans because he wants to go out with the guys after work, gets totally smashed at clubs, texts her for sex after midnight, swipes on Tinder as he heads to her house, and then belittles her when she’s nice to him. Their conversations are excruciating; Felix’s idiocy is insufferable and Alice’s masochistically polite deference is maddening.

Eileen’s interest, Simon, is on the opposite side of the schmuck spectrum: he’s known Eileen since they were young, is six years older, works in politics, is Catholic, and very attractive. His only fault seems to be that he dates women in their early twenties.

Simon’s Catholicism defines his character, but it also accentuates an overlooked and unfashionable aspect of Rooney’s work: her attraction to religion. She gestured to religion in Conversations with Friends, but she engages with it more deliberately in Beautiful World, in which Felix mocks Simon’s faith, Eileen skeptically accompanies him to Mass, and Alice confesses she’s “fascinated and touched by the ‘personality’ of Jesus, in a rather sentimental, arguably even maudlin way.” “Could it be that easy?” she wonders. “We just have to weep and prostrate ourselves and God forgives everything?” She admits that maybe it’s not, that “maybe to weep and prostrate ourselves with genuine sincerity is the hardest thing we could ever learn how to do.” She knows she’ll never be able to do it.

It’s unfortunate that for Rooney’s Irish characters, religion is understood within the narrow confines of Catholicism. You’re either part of the Church, or you’re an atheist. Religion is a matter of faith, not action. Yet in Judaism and Buddhism, it doesn’t really matter what you believe. It matters what you do. And the best thing you can do for the world is purify your own mind, through meditation. Rooney seems oblivious of this, and because her protagonists can’t believe, they have no spiritual practice – much less get involved in activism. They long for spiritual depth, but they live lives of superficiality, vacuity, and futility. That is, while Alice and Eileen are whip-smart, they’re anything but wise.

Of course, it’s unfair I’d expect them to be. After all, they’re only 30. And the fact that I’m so frustrated with them only shows that Rooney has written another captivating novel. Beautiful World, Where Are You confronted me with my own judgment, and challenged me to develop compassion for people unlike myself. And that’s a political act. 

The writer teaches writing for Harvard University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Scholar and many other publications. He is currently working on a book about antisemitism.