Sally Rooney Is Timeless, Not ‘Millennial’

Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney

by Wynter K Miller

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every generation must be in need of a generational novelist — at least, that’s the assumption millennial author and critic Tony Tulathimutte opened his New York Times essay with in 2016. Where, Tulathimutte asked, are the Hemingways, Salingers, Kerouacs, and Foster Wallaces of the pumpkin spice latte set?**

Six months later, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was published, giving my friends and I what we had, apparently, desperately needed: A Voice of Our Generation. Since then, Rooney has been hailed variously as both the “first great millennial novelist” (a label allegedly affixed by the New York Times, though I cannot find the article of origin even after a search of the paper’s archives) and “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” (a label coined by her own editor).

Given such grandiose designations, one might expect a proportionate, if not greater, amount of literary lambasting. There is, after all, nothing so enjoyable as hating that which everyone else loves. And yet in the years between Rooney’s anointment as The Chosen One and now, her celebrity star has only risen — this despite the fact that she has continued to work; Conversations with Friends was followed by the smash hit Normal People, which was long-listed for the Man Booker in 2018 and adapted for an Emmy-nominated television series written by Rooney. In 2021, Rooney’s third novel was published after months of absolutely unbearable fanfare, garnering over 30 reviews from all of the major outlets before the day it was available for purchase.

… And everyone loved it.

OK, OK, this isn’t strictly true. There have been “mixed” reviews — but of the the 67 reviews currently listed in the Book Marks aggregator, there are so many “raves” and “positives,” I quit counting after 17 and 12 respectively (I’m a millennial, my attention span is evolved (not short) and I have better things to do than count reviews one by one). Suffice to say, like her two novels before it, Rooney’s third has been well received.

Beautiful World, Where Are You? opens in a hotel bar where Alice, one of the novel’s four protagonists, is waiting for a Tinder date. The prose is written in Rooney’s characteristic spare style. “A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door.” “Her appearance was neat and tidy.” Eventually “a man entered through the door,” and, in the pages that follow, Alice and Felix’s date is, from both of their perspectives, “a failure in the end.”

Rooney’s third novel is similar to her previous work in that the focus is interpersonal relationships. Alice is sleeping with Felix and Eileen is sleeping with Simon. Alice and Eileen are best friends living apart, writing to one another via email about their relationships with Felix and Simon. Their friendship provides the framework for everything else — and though that “everything else” is expansive — Beautiful World is, to borrow Alice’s phrasing (who acts as something like Rooney’s avatar in the novel), ultimately a story about sex and friendship.

In the novel’s 350 pages, Rooney discusses a handful of -isms — Marxism, capitalism, consumerism, aestheticism — as well as climate change, global politics, class divisions, the definition of “labor,” the definition of “beauty,” the moral responsibility of the individual, and Christianity. In less capable hands, the novel might have read like a syllabus for “good citizenry,” a discourse about whether it’s possible to exist as a moral actor in a global economy. And yet, in Rooney’s hands, it never feels that way. Instead, the sexual tension between the couples cuts through everything like a plot scythe, lending the story a propulsive quality usually found in genre fiction.

And yet, despite its readability, Beautiful World is smart — and herein lies the problem with its categorization as a “millennial novel” (and, for that matter, Rooney’s categorization as a “millennial writer”). Like her 19th-century predecessors with whose work Rooney shares an exacting eye for social observation and critique (I am thinking, especially, of Jane Austen), Rooney has been thrust into a category that, in my opinion at least, devalues her intellectualism. To be sure, there are millennial trappings. Alice and Eileen communicate primarily via email. Alice and Felix meet on Tinder. Eileen spends a fair amount of time internet stalking her ex-boyfriend and his new, influencer girlfriend. Of the four characters, Simon is arguably the least millennial — but his idealism, belief in God, and general declination to engage in “millennial behaviors” makes him a lightning rod for skepticism and ridicule. At one point, Eileen attends Sunday Mass with Simon and observes with amazement that he “wasn’t embarrassed for himself, to be caught in the act of worshipping a supreme being I didn’t believe in.”

If there are readers avoiding Rooney because the hype has given her the appearance of being trendy or non-substantive, those readers are missing out. Similarly, if there are readers avoiding Rooney because they assume the content of her novels is limited in relevance to a particular age group or time frame, those readers are also missing out (again, if you must label her, it is more accurate to think of Rooney as a 19th-century writer “dressed up in contemporary clothing”).

Finally, if there are readers avoiding Rooney because she is exactly their age (or younger) and it’s simply too depressing to confront a level of glittering literary success they have not attained (and will never attain) for themselves, I can only advise focusing on the “clothing,” such as it were, rather than the writer. Rooney and I were born the same year; it helps to inhale her novels in a single sitting and refuse to read the author bio.

Rating: 5 stars

**In his article, Tulathumutte ultimately concluded that “anointing generational spokespeople” is simplistic; ironically, Tulathumutte’s own debut novel was also called the first great (American) millennial novel by New York Magazine.

Favorite Lines

Maybe certain kinds of pain at certain formative stages in life just impress themselves into a person’s sense of self permanently … And now, I just feel like the kind of person whose life partner would fall out of love with them after several years, and I can’t find a way not to be that kind of person anymore.

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. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the ‘main characters’ of a novel would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful. … So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world — packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text.

I also feel certain it’s better to be deeply loved … than widely liked …

And isn’t death just the apocalypse in the first person?

I have put between myself and my parents such a gulf of sophistication that it’s impossible for them to touch me now or to reach me at all. And I look back across that gulf not with a sense of guilt or loss, but with relief and satisfaction. Am I better than they are? Certainly not, although maybe luckier. But I am different, and I don’t understand them very well, and I can’t live with them or draw them into my inner world — or for that matter write about them. All my filial duties are nothing but a series of rituals on my part designed to shield myself from criticism while giving nothing of myself away.

But do you ever experience a sort of diluted personalized version of that feeling, as if your own life, your own world, has slowly but perceptibly become an uglier place? Or even a sense that while you used to be in step with the cultural discourse, you’re not anymore and you feel yourself adrift from the world of ideas, alienated, with no intellectual home? Maybe it is about our specific historical moment, or maybe it’s just about getting older and disillusioned and it happens to everyone. When I look back on what we were like when we first met, I don’t think we were really wrong about anything, except about ourselves. The ideas were right, but the mistake was that we thought we mattered.

I still think of myself as someone who is interested in the experience of beauty, but I would never describe myself, except to you in this email, as interested in beauty because people would assume that I meant I was interested in cosmetics. This I guess is the dominant meaning of the word ‘beauty’ in our culture now. And it seems telling that this meaning of the word ‘beauty’ signifies something so profoundly ugly … I think the beauty industry is responsible for some of the worst ugliness we see around us in our visual environment …

I even think it’s possible to enjoy the good looks of other people, their faces and bodies, in a way that’s purely aesthetic, i.e., without the element of desire. Personally, I often find people beautiful to look at without feeling any inclination to draw them into a particular relationship with myself. In fact, I don’t find beauty much of an inducement to desire anyway.

In a way, when we love fictional characters, knowing that they can never love us in return, is that not a method of practicing in miniature the kind of personally disinterested love to which Jesus calls us? I mean that sympathetic engagement is a form of desire with an object but without a subject, a way of wanting without wanting; desiring for others not what I want for myself but the way I want for myself.

It was important to me then to prove that I was a special person. And in my attempt to prove it, I made it true. Only afterwards, when I had received the money and acclaim which I believed I deserved, did I understand that it was not possible for anyone to deserve these things, and by then it was too late. I had already become the person I had once longed to be and now energetically despised …

While I was in love, I tried to write a little here and there, but my thoughts always returned to the object of my affection, and my feelings ran back inexorably toward her, so my work could never develop any substance of its own, and I had no meaningful place for it in my life. We were happy, and then we were unhappy, and after some misery and recrimination, we broke up — and only then could I start giving myself to my work in a serious way. It was like I had cleared a space inside myself, and I had to fill it up somehow, and that’s how I came to sit down and write. I had to empty my life out first and begin from there. Looking back now on the period when I wrote the books, I feel like it was a good time in my life because I had work I needed to do and I did it. I was perennially broke, and lonely, and anxious about money, but I also had this other thing, this part of my life which was secret and protected, and my thoughts returned to it all the time, and my feelings orbited around it, and it belonged to me completely. Anyway, it was like a love affair, or an infatuation, except that it only involved myself and it was all within my own control. (The opposite of a love affair, then.)

For my part, the difference between lockdown and normal life is, depressingly, minimal. … working from home, reading, avoiding social gatherings. But then it turns out that even a tiny amount of socializing is very different from none. I mean, one dinner party every two weeks is categorically different from no parties at all.

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California. @wynterkm