Romy Danielewicz articulates a critique of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber Books, 2021), a novel that set out to examine ‘aesthetics and political crisis’, whilst also carrying a romanticising impulse which centres the privileged few.
Sometimes on a weekend I like to enjoy the rare treat of getting on my bike and hurtling down Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, the busiest and most expensive high street outside of London. Named after a tobacco colonist and long due a renaming, this upmarket shopping artery is also a site of protest and performance of all denominations. Craning my neck as I zig zag around pedestrians in an attempt to take in this public discourse, I note the usual array of fervent evangelists, a strong anti-vaxxer contingent, a man belting out an opera libretto and two separate stands in support of the liberation of Palestine, one that sells t-shirts and one that doesn’t. It is on this last stand that I spot a hardback copy of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, tucked in between a tote bag and a stack of information leaflets.
Twitter certainly kicked off following the announcement of Rooney’s decision not to sell translation rights to her latest novel to Modan, major Israeli publisher not compliant with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions  movement guidelines. The right proceeded swiftly with an attempt to cancel Rooney on the grounds of defying ‘human rights and the values of democracy, free speech, and the rights of women and minorities’ in a ‘futile millennial gesture’ (respectively: Jake Wallis Simons, writer for the Spectator; and the Telegraph). Most left commentators were in agreement in supporting the decision, which in itself was hardly controversial and previously made by other authors, including Alice Walker in 2012 over translation rights to The Colour Purple.
In an interview with the Louisiana Channel, Rooney muses over the extent to which ‘books have the potential to speak truth to power, to be political texts’. The author has been celebrated as a ‘funny, cerebral Marxist’ in the New Yorker and demonised in the Daily Mail as (hilariously) ‘ultra-left leaning’ and guilty of ‘peppering her bestselling novels with communist ideas’. That notwithstanding, her novels have come under criticism from the left itself for what has been described as performative politics that skirt true radicalism. Whilst an author’s political stance is an important lens through which to read their novels, these views can be embedded in the work itself to a greater or lesser success. Rooney’s decision, however, casts the question of political usefulness in a different light, suggesting there is more than one way for a novel to have political leverage and impact. Under globalised capitalism it is the networks of distribution that uphold power structures, and it is here that resistance is timely and crucial.
In light of this dynamic situation, one might argue that the political content of a bestselling novel is irrelevant because its power lies in its distributional reach that, if necessary, can be withheld. As it happens, though, I have too much respect for Sally Rooney to reduce her work to the status of a mere commodity. The best way I can think of expressing this respect is by articulating a political critique of the novel itself as one ultra-left leaning millennial to another. Perhaps the main frustration I have faced with the characters of Beautiful World, Where Are You, is where they choose to locate their political concerns, hopes and disappointments. Ostensibly unable to locate any meaning in our present jumble of babies filled with microplastics, the characters resolutely thirst for the past. According to Alice, a celebrity writer in the book, ‘beauty died with the collapse of the Soviet Union’ (Rooney, 2021). Throughout the novel, the characters remain haunted by various forms of aesthetic loss, failing to demonstrate contemporary solidarities as crucial as that manifested by Rooney in her support of BDS.
The characters’ despondency frequently expresses itself through a fixation on what are arguably cosmetic symptoms of greater systemic problems. An example of this is their apparent inability to reconcile with the fact that plastic packaging of beauty products is depressingly ugly, and the beauty industry itself does not represent real beauty. Which in itself, I think, is a statement many would agree with. However, if I learnt anything from my extensive research into ten-step-skincare routines (apart from the relative merits of slugging), it is that products inevitably come in packaging, and while no amount of greenwashing will redeem it, one may as well get one’s joys from wherever they can be found in our current political impasse.
Tormented by the ugliness of life under capitalism, the characters nonetheless long for the possibility of a truly beautiful world, evoked in the titular reference to a romantic poem by Friedrich Schiller. These sentiments are explored through an interesting formal structure, consisting half of (extremely) remote third person narration, and half of long emails, a clunky legacy of the characters’ university days. The narration gives little away of their emotional life other than, for example, exactly how weary their expressions are. Even with that constraint, as a highly accomplished character writer, Rooney manages to bring them to life – as usual, the brisk dialogue does a lot of the work.
Spurred on by the pace of the narration, I struggled to be as appreciative of the long emails, which indulge in internal monologue for close to half the book without furthering the plot. The focus of the emails is usually on aesthetic diatribes and the characters’ frustration at not finding a meaningful political outlet. It is in this epistolary mode that we learn many things we wish we never had, such as the intensity of the characters’ despair over the encroaching of plastic onto their clean world, or their anxiety over the exact meaning of their taste for Danish furniture. The characters double down to acknowledge their own privilege in a way that feels not only ineffectual but, more seriously, uninteresting. The only effect of these declarations which never seem to go beyond performativity is centring themselves in the eyes of the increasingly indifferent reader. And whilst the emails are undeniably a form of pastiche, the rest of the novel resists this reading, making me even less certain what exactly is being communicated here.
The characters’ capacity for meaningful political action is, like with so many of us, reduced to nil by the pressures of capitalism: low-paid work, mental health struggles, profound alienation. While they are each sympathetic on an individual basis, it is the relationships that really take the hit of the book’s flawed politics, forming a cis-heteronormative square (astrologically a notorious positioning). Eileen, an editorial assistant for a literary magazine, considers settling with Simon, a self-sacrificing political advisor. Their drawn out will-they-won’t-they would be largely innocuous if it weren’t for the crushing normativity of the sex scenes, in themselves often quite repetitive. While it feels like the author is trying to break through an impasse in how sex is conventionally described, the feminism of this attempt feels narrow and cis-gazey. There are points in the book where it feels very uncomfortable, including such gems coming out of Simon’s purportedly well-meaning Christian mouth:
I suppose the way I think about these things––I mean, even when we do make love, I sometimes feel like it’s something that I’m doing to you, for my own reasons. And maybe you get some kind of innocent physical pleasure out of it, I hope you do, but for me it’s different. I know you’re going to say that’s sexist.
There may well be reasons to introduce sexist characters into the book, but this attempt feels largely unexamined. Simon’s immediate disclaimer rings hollow in the wake of Eileen’s reaction:
She was laughing, her mouth was open. It is sexist, she said. Not that I mind. It’s flattering, like you were saying. You have this primal desire to subjugate and possess me. It’s very masculine, I think it’s sexy.
Call me a killjoy but the above passage reads as though it was lifted straight from the Hets Explain Yourselves Instagram account (sadly still on hiatus). In other words, I can’t help but think that the critical framing is insufficient, and the entire scene seems to be working in opposition to what I assume was intended as a nuanced and emancipatory exploration of sexual politics. These somewhat reactionary tendencies reflect the romantic impulse of the book, a harking for a bygone time when men were men and women were women.
The relationship between Alice, a celebrity writer, and Felix, currently working in an Amazon warehouse, may seem more promising considering they are both bi (you may note I am a somewhat biased reader, but long years of life avoidance via compulsive reading taught me that it is vital to know what you look for in a book). And indeed, the sex scenes are better here. However, the characters’ queerness seems largely ad hoc and is never seriously investigated as we watch the playthrough of their relationship. Instead, as with Rooney’s Normal People, their narrative is driven at least partly by class differences. But rather than embracing complexity in the relationship, the author chooses to conjure what appears to be class resentment, superimposed onto Alice and Felix’s arguments in a way that reads as gratuitous.
Felix, a kind man who reminds his flatmates to feed their spaniel wet food, is unexpectedly revealed to be capable of cruelty which the reader may struggle to square with what they intuit of his inner life. Although the emails offer us more than a glimpse of what goes through Alice and Eileen’s heads, when it comes to Felix and Simon, the narration leaves us with precious little. This experimental characterisation is often interesting – but at points feels like it lacks structural support. As a result, Felix’s portrayal is plagued with incoherence all the way up to the ultimate verdict of a nice lad after all, in a conflict-free ending that seems to have magicked itself up out of nowhere. As in Rooney’s previous novels, other queer characters are occasionally ushered in, although never with any depth or earnest exploration of their storylines.
If Beautiful World was a little lighter on its feet, I could plausibly be convinced that it is a satire. As things stand, however, the reader is left to wonder whether there was any political urgency to the writing of this book, arguably in itself not only a literary product but one that centres the lives of the privileged few. Alice and Eileen, both with their own investments in the publishing industry, at multiple points throughout the book float the sheer unnecessariness of the majority of contemporary novels. The fact that it is only contemporary novels that are deemed surplus harks back to the book’s romanticising impulse, an infatuation with the olden days and classical ideas of beauty. In her emails to Eileen, Alice voices her discontent with the landscape of international publishing, the ‘well-observed novels about everyday life’ written by people who enjoy enormous levels of comfort and privilege.
Rooney’s previous novels are so compulsively readable because they seem to be woven out of the author’s lived experience, and the understanding of the social relations outlined therein is complex and empathetic. Characters in their early twenties are more pliant and easily lend themselves to various novelistic purposes, often without the reader questioning quite as much whether their politics are sound or not. But as the characters of Beautiful World are pushing thirty, the charms and the class camouflage of youth fall off and suddenly there is not very much they have left to say, or show for themselves, other than their aspirations. Eileen is observed wearing a silk blouse at least twice in the book, a detail which rather than revealing something about her character, echoed to me the libidinal participation in capitalism we are all to a greater or lesser degree absorbed in via our shopping habits. And after a summer of evenings in the park, any mention of overshirts gets me cringing over the fateful inevitability of our fashion cycle. It is a form of realism, but one that feels a little too close to what it is seemingly meant to critique, veering dangerously close to parody. The same flattening affect crops up when the characters discuss the ethical implications of carrying on with their lives as the climate emergency unfolds:
So of course in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship.
In this framing, the climate crisis we are wading into at speed is deployed as little more than a semi-dramatic backdrop for the characters’ preoccupations. What could have been timely and necessary reads as a little self-absorbed, maybe even perfunctory, with more than a pinch of pathos. At one point in the novel, the characters insist that the reader of contemporary fiction desires for the events of the plot to be held firmly within the brackets of real-world time. The purpose of this meta-literary device is allegedly to guarantee clarity in how the events of the plot relate to wider geo-political historical action. Without speaking for the contemporary reader, I think that this relation is only relevant if the events of the novel are somehow meaningfully feeding into the said historical current, which I am not convinced here is at all the case. And not every novel has to do this – but the sheer weight of cumulative ennui throughout Beautiful World prevents the book from being simply ‘a well-observed novel about everyday life’ either.
The way that Beautiful World scrutinises the grand narratives of adult life: love, career, family, the fantasy of the good life, reads at points like a case study of Laurent Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, a relation under which the thing you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Could beauty potentially be one of those entrapping narratives? As with other social paradigms under cruel optimism, beauty is what you make it and it can work for you if the circumstances are right. The events of the novel hint that the one place where true beauty is still to be found is the bonds of sociality, our experiences with friends and lovers – in itself a very narrow definition of kin. In the world of Rooney’s novels, overwhelmingly white, mostly middle-class and largely expunged of openly queer or disabled characters, it is not difficult to see who it excludes.
I was given Beautiful World by a friend who, like me, loved Normal People. Neither of us were able to put the book down at the time (in fact I seem to remember skipping a house party in order to read it in one sitting). And to confess, I was fully hoping for a repeat of that escapism, pleasurable yet ultimately insightful in that it would help me do my own work on myself and broaden my understanding of various subjectivities, emotions and experiences. Instead Beautiful World has presented me with an aesthetic treaty on the respective value of beauty over ugliness. The fact that it is this ugliness that remains the main aspect of the ongoing crisis from which the characters are not shielded is extremely telling of their positioning.
It goes without saying that the Western world has for a while now been experiencing the Freudian horror of being unable to make its own waste truly disappear, whilst also dealing with its distress by dumping it onto Global Majority countries. So forgive me, but when the €200,000-earning Alice complains about the invention of plastic, it seems to be at best a form of self-castigating sarcasm. Despite my doubts as to the creative mileage of such irony, I dutifully persevered through most of the book, until the following passage:
Were they aware, in the intensity of their embrace, of something slightly ridiculous about this tableau, something almost comical, as someone nearby sneezed violently into a crumpled tissue; as a dirty discarded plastic bottle scuttled along the platform under a breath of wind; as a mechanised billboard on the station wall rotated from an advertisement for hair products to an advertisement for car insurance; as life in its ordinariness and even ugly vulgarity imposed itself everywhere all around them?
The voice here is for the first time fully neutral, and yet engaged – indeed somewhat compassionate. It no longer limits itself to mere descriptions of the visible aspects of people’s movements. And what does this long-awaited voice do? It affirms what I have feared all along, that this self-deprecating hopelessness might actually be for real, is in fact true. The book really is concerned with the ugliness of capitalism whilst failing to propose meaningful solidarities that could resist it whilst extending beyond our immediate kin. Whilst delivering a placating happy ending on the romance front, the final portion of the book abandons the reader in a political situation over which we have little agency, at a point when it feels like it is already too late for protest. Depending on our means we have the choice of either fleeing the city and washing our hands of the whole mess as much as possible (Alice), or withstanding the neoliberal workplace and generally continuing to do our own thing (Eileen). Despite the professed relationality of Beautiful World, it all feels depressingly individualistic.
When Rooney’s fellowship at the New York Public Library was announced in early 2019, the press release stated that the novel she would be working on would examine ‘aesthetics and political crisis’. After reading Beautiful World, Where Are You, I have significant doubts so as to whether the novel is a generative contribution to this enquiry. Its emancipatory impulse feels inoculated by the characters’ despondency and eventual capitulation in the face of the status quo, as well as persistent glorification of the bygones. Furthermore, the characters seem to be so isolated from any sense of real discourse that at points I felt genuinely worried for them. Do they ever go on Twitter?
One of the unexpected strengths of Normal People and Conversations with Friends was the way they demonstrated, perhaps unintentionally, how shallow their characters’ political commitment was. In Beautiful World, however, the characters’ political views fall victim to a sense of inertia that leaves the reader questioning the amount of space those passionate pledges have taken up in the first place. Although I would love to inhabit a world in which every novel would be a political text, it is a world that is yet to be imagined.
 ‘The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.’ (BDS Movement, 2021) ~
Text: Romy Danielewicz
Image: Romy Danielewicz