Beautiful World Where Are You?

Beautiful World Where Are You?
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

I’m fundamentally jealous of Sally Rooney. Not only is she the world’s most famous popular literary author, she's also creating exactly the kinds of novels I would want to write if I ever managed to write a novel: heavy on dialogue and focused on the knotty personal interactions between 2-4 people, as if those are the only things that matter. A lot of Beautiful World is composed of emails that the two main characters send to each other, and one of them (dare I say it doesn’t really matter which?) writes:

in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity being on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?

And I don’t think that’s literally true, there are other things to live for, but I do think that for many of us, it’s… personally true, whatever that means.

For much of the novel, Rooney mostly doesn’t describe the characters’ inner lives. Of this she says, in an (excellent) interview by Rosa Lyster:

In essence, I wanted to allow the novel’s characters to go about their lives without any apparent authorial judgement or commentary. And I gradually began to find that I didn’t need to present what is generally called ‘interiority’ in order to accomplish this. I could just impartially observe and describe the characters saying and doing things, without needing to speculate on what they secretly thought or felt. This decision does impose a certain distance between the reader and the novel’s protagonists, but it’s a distance that makes sense to me—basically the same distance that prevents us from reading the minds of other people in our real lives.

It’s strange to argue against Rooney regarding her own assessment of her own book, but I feel that this isn’t what the book was doing: I think there is editorialising by the narrator in the book, just not omniscient editorialising. The narrator says that character X did thing Y “as if she was feeling Z,” which is “the same distance” we have from other people in our real lives, but that sure as hell doesn’t stop us from trying to read their minds. We observe the behaviour of the people around us -- a movement, a gesture, a tone of voice -- and interpret it with uncertainty, though sometimes with great confidence.

In my view, Rooney hasn’t invented an impartial externalised narrator, she’s invented a restrained, opinionated, non-omniscient narrator. (Yes yes of course she didn’t invent this, nothing is new under the sun, but personally I’ve never seen it before).

For a long time I couldn’t figure out what I thought of this, what impact it was having on The Reader (by which of course I mean me -- whenever a critic writes “here, the reader feels…” when they actually mean “here, I feel…” I want to tear out a page). Eventually I realised that, for me, the non-omniscient narrator was somehow universalising, and made me feel that my life is banal because my life is interchangeable with the characters’ and their experiences.

This effect intersects with one of the weirdest quirks of the book, which is that usually (but not always) Rooney doesn’t name the specific brands of commonly used things her characters commonly use. They “open up a dating app” or “pull up a taxi app” -- not Tinder, not Uber, just the generic name of the product category. It’s all described as if by an alien looking down on a human civilisation, this weird sterile distance from everyday things…

…. except that at some point, suddenly, the app will be mentioned by name: the generic dating app is Tinder, after all. In any other novel you would think this is just bad editing but there’s no way someone as important as Rooney had anything other than a careful edit (surely? Or maybe not, maybe superstar authors get less editing, maybe they have a different dynamic with their editors, I don’t know).

This choice really makes me feel the banality of my experiences: Rooney’s characters could be using one app or some other, and so could I, it doesn’t matter, it makes no difference. I think books are “meant” to make you/me/people Feel Seen, like you’re not alone in the world -- there’s a quote I can’t track right down right now that says the point of books is that someone expresses a feeling and you say to yourself: “Ah, I thought it was just me!”

Somehow my own personal response to that experience is feeling that my life is banal. I do not know if that’s just me.

Rooney describes about her writing process:

I imagined my characters in various different little scenarios, and typed out the scenarios on my laptop. While I was typing, I had the mental image of my characters before me, doing whatever it was that the scene required—walking around, eating dinner, talking on the phone, or whatever.

And more often than not, nothing really interesting would happen. The character would finish having dinner, or talking on the phone, and that would be it, and the scene would end up in a “deleted work” file on my computer.

But sometimes, a character would do or say something interesting or revealing, that seemed to signal some shift in their relationship with another character, and the scene would take on a new quality. This is the only way I know how to write a novel, or any kind of fiction.

Sometimes I was reminded of the improv game New Choice, where performers do a scene and then someone shouts “New Choice!” and the performers have to rewind 5 seconds and come up with a different path that the scene could go down. And in the best possible way some of Rooney’s scenes felt like this: a character would say or do something, and it felt very Obvious and Predictable what the other character should do next, but then the other character did something really different and unexpected but very satisfying, and I really admired that.

There’s one special section of the novel, The Wedding Scene, of which Rooney writes:

when it came time to write this section, I found myself doing something different. Instead of presenting a scene or series of scenes through dialogue and dramatic action, I was trying to present a kind of sensory experience—a series of images and memories and moods. This allowed me to steal a glimpse at the inner lives of some of the novel’s “minor” characters … [and] to present—in a kind of loose fragmentary way—the thoughts and memories of two of the novel’s principal characters.

Here’s my pretentious literary criticism for the day: what the Wedding Scene reminds me of, quite viscerally, is the Lord Marchmain (inner) speech at the end of Brideshead Revisited. And what I’m dying to know is how directly and consciously Rooney was influenced by Brideshead while writing Beautiful World.

Now: I think it’s fair to speculate, maybe even assume, that Rooney has read Brideshead, because 1) it’s one of the Great English Language Novels, 2) she seems very well read, 3) she’s clearly interested in dilemmas of secularism and Catholicism specifically.

But speculating about a deeper resemblance here, maybe a conscious and direct influence of the Marchmain Monologue on the Wedding Scene, is to commit a kind of logical fallacy I don’t have a name for, a kind of omitted variable bias. There are so many novels out there, and I’ve read only a fraction of a percent of them, and as a result if I see one old novel and one new one doing something similar I think “wow, this new one must have been influenced by that other one I read!” But in reality, it’s very possible that they were both influenced by some massive literary trend that I’m just not familiar with, but Rooney and Waugh both were.

If I remember rightly, Waugh later wrote that the Marchmain segment is a throwback to a previous literary period, that it was anachronistic when he wrote it, and that if he’d written Brideshed even a few years later he wouldn’t have included it. (Five guineas to anyone who can find me the reference for this Waugh-claim, or tell me what I’m confusing it for). And I felt that, similarly, Rooney’s Wedding Scene came from a different literary epoch than the rest of the novel, and that (more specifically, more enjoyably) it may have come from the same lost literary age that Marchmain’s inner monologue comes from. And I love that thought, that there’s a now-mythical forgotten period of literature out there, hiding somewhere under the earth, occasionally sending up shoots into a contemporary novel.

Some things are particularly hard to capture in fiction, in that they are accurate and true to life, but still feel horrible and implausible on the page. One of those things is those long relationships (or non-relationships) where two people are clearly in love with each other, will clearly end up with each other, and everybody knows it, but they themselves somehow implausibly don’t realise it, or don’t even believe that the other person really likes them, even though the other person very obviously loves them.

Look, what can I say: that thing is real, it happens every day. It is truly possible to not-understand that someone is in love with you, or that you are in love with someone, even when that love is obvious to everyone other than you. But…. I suspect that there’s no way to convey such a relationship satisfyingly in writing. If you convey it accurately it just looks implausible, unbelievable, untrue. In real life there are situations where people say “if you put this in a movie it would sound made up” -- certain coincidences, or twists of fate, even though they really did happen exactly that way, just don’t sound real unless they’re actually happening. (Maybe there’s a theory of life and literature there, I don’t know).

I suspect this kind of protracted oblivious relationship is just one of those things that can’t be described plausibly, that sounds made up even though it really happens. Rooney is very good at describing them, which makes things worse.

With thanks to Kaamya, Sylvia, Peter, Frith, and Sifnos.

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