Sally Rooney's Glittering Surfaces
On "Beautiful World, Where Are You," novels without interiority, and social anxiety.
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This weekend I went to a wedding — the first wedding I’d gone to since March 7, 2020. For the first time since my son was born, at the end of 2019, I left him overnight, and my husband and I drove several hours to see one of my best friends get married. She was one of the most radiantly happy and lovely brides I’ve ever seen, and her new husband looked at her like he couldn’t believe his luck, which is what I like to see at my friends’ weddings. It was a small, outdoor ceremony, under makeshift cover thanks to rain, and everyone had a mask in their pocket. But most things were the same as always: I took a little too long doing my makeup and made us late; I cried happily throughout the whole ceremony and most of the speeches; I had a few glasses of wine and danced to Britney; I talked to some people I don’t know well and woke up with a crushing social anxiety hangover, convinced that I’d come off as a real idiot.
I had sort of forgotten about social anxiety during the past 18 months. It’s been a very difficult year for many people with mental health struggles, but for my specific brand, there’s been an aspect of ease. Being around people outside of my immediate circle of family and close friends can leave me in a days-long spiral of regret and self-loathing, even if I behaved, objectively, pretty normally; for many months now, that’s basically never happened, and so I have been spared the aftermath. At this wedding, I saw a lot of very nice people I knew in college, where I met both halves of the couple and became good friends with the bride. I didn’t make very many good friends in college, a time when I was absolutely dominated by my social anxiety, so seeing all these long-ago acquaintances was like being surrounded by dozens of walking reminders of my own relational inadequacy.
Meanwhile, I was reading the new Sally Rooney. Emma already wrote a little bit about “Beautiful World, Where Are You” in last week’s newsletter, which I recommend. I also recommend the book, even to those who found “Normal People” a bit bland; to me, this is her best, most interesting novel yet, while also being wildly frustrating in certain ways. It’s about four young adults — Alice, a famous novelist; her friend Eileen, an editorial assistant at a literary journal; Felix, a warehouse worker who meets Alice on Tinder; and Simon, a left-wing political aide who grew up with Eileen — who are trying to find meaning and connection in each other and in their work, amid a world that seems to be brutal and ugly and on the precipice of collapse.
Rooney is often compared to Jane Austen; her books do tend to concern themselves with similar questions, such as how people misread and harm each other while trying to connect. Austen was a pioneer of free indirect discourse, the technique in which a third person narrator takes on the perspective of a character for a moment in the narrative. Though Austen is much adapted for screen, this is a gambit specific to writing. It plays to the strength of a novel — depicting interiority, which a filmmaker can only hope to invite a viewer to imagine through carefully chosen images and sounds.
What is odd about “Beautiful World, Where Are You” is that it almost entirely eschews this interiority. Here are the first few sentences: “A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door. Her appearance was neat and tidy: white blouse, fair hair tucked behind her ears. She glanced at the screen of her phone, on which was displayed a messaging interface, and then looked back at the door again. It was late March, the bar was quiet, and outside the window to her right the sun was beginning to set over the Atlantic. It was four minutes past seven, then five, six minutes past. Briefly and with no perceptible interest, she examined her fingernails. At eight minutes past seven, a man entered through the door. He was slight and dark-haired, with a narrow face.”
The narrative portions of the book are almost entirely told in this manner: clean, neat sentences conveying basic information about observable actions. It’s almost like reading alt text for a set of stock images, or a description of a scene in a movie. Sometimes Eileen and Simon talk to each other, or Felix and Alice, but their conversations are often confusing; they don’t say enough to make it clear to each other or to the reader what they’re feeling or why they’re behaving the way we are. Instead we watch them sitting in a café having a sandwich and reading a book, lying on their bed and opening various apps on their phones, staring motionlessly at their laptops, walking down the street. She details expressions that they make, or gestures, but is careful not to explain what exact emotion they’re conveying or what motivated their movements. In screenwriting fashion, they’re always doing things “as if” they were intending or feeling a certain thing.
To counterbalance this extreme exteriority, half of the novel is told through email correspondence between Alice and Eileen, who live several hours apart since Alice had a breakdown over her sudden rise to international fame and moved to a rural Irish town. In narrative chapters, the women open and close text conversations, eat apples, and go to bed; in their emails, they carefully criticize and flatter each other, express their fatalism about the state of the planet and their guilt over participating in capitalism, and exchange long philosophical musings about the value of art and religion. They try to date exactly when the world lost its beauty, which they both agree it has. Eileen’s theory: “human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence… Now a majority of objects in our visual environment are made of plastic, the ugliest substance on earth, a material which when dyed does not take on colour but actually exudes colour, in an inimitably ugly way.”
Sometimes I think that what has made the world lose its beauty IS plastic, but mostly I think it’s everything we do with fossil fuels — the extraction, the environmental devastation, the plastic, the devices. The amount of time we spend observing the characters, without engaging with their interior lives, made me dwell on how much devices have shaped The Way We Live Now. Even just a few years ago (wasn’t this a “Girls” conceit?), there was the idea of a writer who did wild things just to have material. Now we’re all trying to make stories out of people who sit quietly all day, looking at things on the internet. I don’t write fiction, but I feel this about myself: How do I expect to have anything interesting to say when I never DO anything interesting? There’s no glamour, no adrenaline rush in sitting quietly, switching between windows on a screen for a few hours, and then walking to another location, lying on the bed, and doing the same thing there. There’s nothing to see. All many of us are doing is seeing and thinking, and trying to figure out what other people are seeing and thinking — especially about us.
Social anxiety, in my experience, is bound up with this uncertainty. We don’t know what people are thinking about us, if they’re thinking about us at all. And the more surveilled our lives are — the more people read my work, look at my Instagram and Twitter, listen to my podcasts — the more overwhelming the numbers of people who may be thinking about us at any time. This is the devil’s bargain. “I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things — having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph on the internet, and reading comments about myself,” writes Alice to Eileen. “When I put it like that, I think: that’s it? And so what? But the fact is, although it’s nothing, it makes me miserable, and I don’t want to live this kind of life.”
To a much (much much much) smaller degree than Rooney and her character Alice, both celebrity novelists who are profoundly conflicted about being famous, I make my living by inviting people to pay attention to me and my thoughts. (This is true of more and more people thanks to social media — even people with relatively private professions and lives might have Instagram or Twitter profiles that other people look at, without the profile-haver knowing exactly who is looking or why.) I used to explain to my therapist, over and over, that I wanted to be good at my job and successful, but without anyone reading my writing, somehow. It felt so vulnerable to have people see my byline, know my name, perhaps attach my name to feelings and opinions. She was very clear with me that this version of “having it all” would not be possible, and she was correct, but I couldn’t stop circling it, and I still can’t. I want to be a good writer, but I don’t want an audience. The audience, like a wedding full of familiar strangers, is a terrifying sea of people who might be thinking, “what a moron” or “she is so grating and self-absorbed,” and I’m inviting them to have opinions like that. They have every right to. It would be weird if at least some people didn’t think that. But what do I have in my life, other than thinking and perceiving and waiting to be perceived and thought about? What am I doing?
In their emails to each other, and, to a lesser extent, the in-person conversations in the novel, Eileen and Alice open a window into where the action is: their minds. This is deeply refreshing, a bursting forth of self-revelation in between the textureless narrative scenes. This is where the ideas come out, where Rooney grapples with intractable quandaries about global capitalism, the source and purpose of beauty, and so on.
And yet it’s still, in a sense, exterior. It’s all filtered and calculated, crafted to make an impression. Eileen and Alice have masses of unspoken resentments and irritations between them, which they try to hide, but they also crave each other’s approval and love. They wax on about the physical illness they feel when thinking about all the disposable goods they consume, or the problem with the modern novel, or the conditions that led to a sudden collapse of civilization in the Late Bronze Age, but is that what they care about, or what they want their brainy friend to believe they care about?
The book is an amalgam of images and personally motivated statements, like a social media feed. We never learn much about Eileen or Alice or Felix or Simon that you couldn’t find out by watching a movie about them. Is that what a novel is for?
At one point, Alice tells Eileen that the novel feels irrelevant in a world full of so much exploitation and suffering, that it “works by suppressing the truth of the world — packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text.” I don’t think the surface of her texts glitter, per se, but they do gleam; they do pack everything tightly down beneath a polished surface, where you can’t access what matters.
What I loved about BWWAY is probably also what I hated about it: It reproduces the alienated way I already live. I go nowhere, do nothing, connect with nobody. It’s as if everyone is behind glass; the world is full of people, but I don’t know how to decipher what they’re thinking or feeling. Communication has largely been replaced by personal brand positioning and posturing. Here and there are insightful riffs on modern life — fame as a replacement for the social function of religion, the paralysis induced by living in what feels like the end times while having no idea how to actually stave off apocalypse. When I stumble on insightful riffs in normal life, it’s usually because I read a good essay in a digital magazine or a smart Twitter thread, and it is a good feeling. For a moment, it makes all that time spent staring at the Internet, consuming other people’s consumable thoughts and images, feel worthwhile. But mostly they move nothing forward; they just let me go “exactly!!!!” and then return to my life of comfortable desperation.
When I read BWWAY, I often thought, “exactly!!!!” But I don’t think it shook anything loose, either. It was another way of validating my life of comfortable desperation, another few hours spent skimming over the glassy surfaces of a world I don’t know how to engage with.
Except, maybe, this: real human connection is insufficient, and yet it’s vital, and it’s very hard to achieve, especially as we all lie around staring at each other’s shiny exteriors and hating ourselves as much as we imagine other people do. (Or maybe that’s just me and Sally Rooney characters.) Is reflecting that misery back at me enough to change how I approach the world, to make me more active or vulnerable or engaged? I don’t think so, but, as Eileen would say, “Really my problem is that I’m annoyed at everyone else for not having all the answers, when I also have none.”
Is “start conversations with people you barely know at parties” an answer? Certainly not. It’s not going to save the world. But it couldn’t hurt, either, to get to know more people instead of just looking at them and wondering.