“Her expression, her posture, did not vary depending on the information she encountered on [her social media feed]: a news report about a horrific natural disaster, a photograph of someone’s beloved domestic pet, a female journalist complaining about death threats… Nothing changed in her outward relationship to the world that would allow an observer to determine that she felt about what she saw.”
The reader of this article, presumably a habitual scroller themselves, may find the quote eerily familiar.
This very inkling, that in the description of this strange, fictional person, there is some truth about me, is what draws me to the writing of Sally Rooney.
And it’s not just me who feels this way.
"Sally Rooney wrote exactly about me," a Twitter user quips.
Sally Rooney: 'JD Salinger of the Snapchat Generation'
Hailed as the ‘first greatest millennial author,’ 30-year-old Rooney is known for the immense relatability value of her books.
Named ‘Salinger of the Snapchat generation' after JD Salinger of Catcher of the Rye fame, Rooney has become akin to a cult symbol for the modern generation. Her writing has spawned a fan base of ardent millennials applauding her relevance, in a phenomenon that has been dubbed by The Guardian as the “online Sallylogy industry.”
It is no matter of surprise then, that the Irish author’s third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You has hit the bookshelves amid a considerable amount of furore from her readers.
But what makes Sally Rooney’s books so relatable?
Written in a similar vein as her previous novels (Conversations With Friends and Normal People), Beautiful World centers around four young Irish protagonists. Alice, Eileen, Felix, and Simon are not as much individuals as they are prototypical reflections of the new generation.
As the four in Rooney’s latest novel navigate through relationships, friendships, politics, religion, and sex in the modern world, the millennial reader finds in their anxieties the fragments of one’s own dilemmas.
Here are a few themes of Beautiful World, Where Are You that strike a chord with its young readers:
‘I Couldn’t Live Normally. I Can’t Explain It Any More Than That’: Millennial Anxiety
Beautiful World, Where Are You contemplates the psychological travails that accompany the decaying nature of human life in the modern world.
Capitalist drudgery, rampant consumerism, despair over environmental decline, and a deep-rooted socio-political crisis contribute to the free-floating anxiety of Rooney’s young protagonists, and so, by extension, her millennial readers.
Sally Rooney’s namesake and protagonist Alice, a writer in her mid-twenties, is perhaps the character with whom I — as a reader — most identify with in this respect.
Alice finds herself ill with anxiety at the very sight of a convenience store – its shelves heaped with indulgent dietary options packed in single-use plastic, representing environmental capitalism of the worst kind.
Yet, even as Alice feels strongly about the cause, she finds herself mandated to partake of the system she despises, for the mere lack of alternative systems.
“Maybe for the rest of the day I feel bad, even for the rest of the week – so what? I still have to buy lunch,” she says, echoing the contemporary sentiment.
‘I’ve Forgotten How to Conduct Social Intercourse’: The Difficulty of Connecting
A looming sense of isolation pervades Rooney’s novel. Communication is fractured and a sense of disconnect guides human relationships.
“If you’re tired of walking you can always abandon me and turn back, I’m quite used to it,” a wary Alice tells Felix on their first date, at the outset of the book.
However, even as they find it difficult to reach out, each of the protagonists yearns for a connection. “You should know that our correspondence is my way of holding on to life,” Alice, who lives alone, tells Eileen by email.
Eileen, who feels herself lonely while surrounded by others at a party, turns up at Simon’s house in the middle of the night with one simple request: “Can I sleep in your bed with you?”
‘Whenever a Girl Asks Me to Open a Jam Jar, I Kind of Fall in Love With Her’: Flawed Feminism
Even as the four protagonists – the women as well as the men – follow the modern liberal movement that preaches equality, the practice of the same in personal relationships remains fissured.
Simon, a left-wing political advisor belonging to the woke intelligentsia, represents the modern day armchair feminist, who respects women but cannot allow himself to imagine that ‘good women’ have sexual desire.
Simon prefers women (notably, he calls them ‘girls’) far younger than him in his romantic relationships. He infantilises his romantic partners, exercising a fatherly authority over them. While his dear ones politely dub it as the messiah complex, it comes across as plain patriarchal conduct.
Eileen, a staunch feminist on paper, finds that she permits herself to be degraded in her sexual and romantic advances towards Simon, putting up the charade of a ‘good wife’ to arouse him. “I do find his paternalistic beliefs about women charming,” she admits guiltily at a point in the novel.
“Eileen’s character feels like a personal attack on me. Wherever she falters as a feminist, I do too,” a friend who has read the book confessed to me.
‘Considering the Approaching Civilisational Collapse…’: Sense of Impending Doom
The dominant feature of the postmodernist literature that has emerged since the late 1900s is a keen inkling of an imminent social apocalypse.
Imbued within Rooney’s novel as well is this very sense of doom, that carries within itself the characteristically millennial fear of an unchangingly miserable existence.
“You’re not like me. You’re going to have a happy life,” Alice, convinced of her suffering, tells Eileen.
Yet, I wouldn’t go as far as calling Rooney’s protagonist completely nihilistic.
It is in moments of intimate connection, with others and their selves, that Rooney’s characters allow themselves to hope, find the courage to go on, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the eponymous ‘beautiful world.'
“I feel wonderfully and almost frighteningly lucky,” Alice remarks as she recounts her relationships with Eileen, Felix, and Simon.
When I read Rooney, I find it difficult to grapple with this dichotomy of anguish and hope that she pushes on to me through her writing. How does one learn to live with both?
While Sally does not give an answer, her literary ego, Alice, offers some kind of cue.
It is the constant tussle between hope and anguish, that, in fleeting moments, forges an almost paradoxical coexistence of both sensibilities in Alice.
It is in these moments that I, and Rooney’s other readers, begin to understand our modern Beautiful World.