I can’t even have the passing thought of the phrase ‘voice of a generation’ without wincing (thank you, Hannah Horvath in Lena Dunham’s Girls.)
My distaste for the expression aside, I’m struck by the way Sally Rooney captures our millennial anxieties, quite unlike anyone else (and believe me, I love a good millennial angst novel). The protagonists of Normal People were coming of age just after the 2008 recession, and here we see that same generation turning thirty and in the quagmire of how to live a life – a good, meaningful life – in the face of oblivion. Selfishly, I hope she never stops being that voice as our generation grows up and old.
‘Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.’
So onto the plot: Alice is a successful writer who’s recovering from a breakdown. Felix is her tinder date with no interest in books. Eileen is Alice’s best friend and editor at a literary journal. And Simon is the boy Eileen has been sort of in love with since she was 15.
Rooney is a master at depicting modern human interaction and the subtleties of communication, from political sparring to comedic riffing to sex – everything is rendered with absolute precision. You can’t look away, even through the exquisite anguish of watching the characters trip up again and again.
There’s a humming anxiety, ever-present – both spoken and unspoken, knowable and unknowable. Is there anyone who doesn’t feel this undercurrent of fractious energy, particularly in our pandemic world? In an epistolary tradition, Alice and Eileen write each other long and winding emails and chew over the unsolvable problems of our contemporary existence –
‘I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong. Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? …We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.’
I partly felt let down by Conversations with Friends because it lacked something – I didn’t think it really knew what to say, and was full of half-formed ideas. I can’t fault Beautiful World, Where Are You on those grounds – there is so much psychological insight, blended with political and social and environmental unease, explored in acute detail. Even if the ideas aren’t themselves new – and Rooney isn’t pretending they are – she presents them as raw and real and an inextricable part of our modern condition.
Maybe it’s an impossible task – to make sense of our present historical moment, to make sense of who we are and what we mean to each other. We don’t always like the characters – that feels like her trademark by this point – but we don’t have to always like them to be invested in and captivated by the way they navigate the world.
I think it’s her best work so far – intimate, expressive, unflinching. If you’re on the fence – I know hype to this degree can be offputting – I hope you give it a try.
‘And out the windows the sky was still dimming, darkening, the vast earth turning slowly on its axis.’