Life unfolding now
If Rooney’s novels ask questions about the contemporary world, its political, ethical and spiritual issues, they don’t really answer them. Instead, she has always focused on how these issues influence our emotional lives. How we feel about ourselves and the people around us is tied to our historical moment; late capitalism produces its own distinct emotional palette dominated by anxiety, overwhelm and fatalism about the future. In Beautiful world, Eileen believes that “human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most common material.” Alice grimly agrees with Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist proclamation that history ended with the victory of liberal capitalism in the Cold War. “I consider the twentieth century to be a long question,” Alice writes, “and in the end we got the wrong answer.”
Of course, the characters of Beautiful world, like in Rooney’s previous novels, is much more talking than acting. “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 … Do the protagonists separate or stay together? In this world, what does it matter? Eileen responds with a sort of pragmatism: even though, she writes, “it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and relationships … do every day. We can wait, if you wish, to access a higher plane of being … without thinking of our own families, friends, lovers, etc. But we will wait, in my opinion, for a long time. Beautiful world recognizes that he cannot change the world, start the revolution, reliably manifest selfless love for others. It can speak about people who want these things, the way they live and feel, which in and of itself is not ethics or politics, but it could be, on rare and unpredictable occasions, the start of these things .
Religion also plays a role in Beautiful world, which offers us Simon, who unlike any other Rooney character exhibits quiet devotion rather than ambiguous spiritual curiosity. Simon works for a left-wing political organization and is also a Catholic. Eileen finds her belief enigmatic. Attending mass with him, she is disoriented by the sincerity of her faith, his strangeness. It surprises her that Simon does “suddenly start to act in a very intense and spiritual way”; instead, he says “things like” I have sinned a lot “… the same way I might say” it’s raining. “” Simon’s faith does not push Eileen to convert, but rather pushes her towards a spirituality of tooth well-being. “I think if I believed in God,” Eileen wrote, “I wouldn’t want to bow down to him and ask for forgiveness. I would just like to thank him everyday, for everything. Beautiful world is much better when it opens up a space between Simon’s Catholicism and Eileen’s curiosity, allowing the possibilities of religion to come between them, even if it remains more of a mystery than revelation.
The “contemporary novel is (with a few exceptions) irrelevant,” Eileen remarks at one point. Alice, the novelist, agrees: “I find my own work morally and politically worthless. But she continues, “It’s what I do with my life, the only thing I want to do.” Writing is Alice’s vocation; it is his “love story … as if God had put his hand on my head and filled me with the most intense desire I have ever felt … to give birth to something that hadn’t never existed before “. With that in mind, it’s time to have a different conversation about Rooney. She is neither the future of the novel nor its reaper. Rooney’s novels have always had more humble ambitions. Beautiful world ends with a pandemic lockdown gesture, but the novel has no “hold” on the pandemic. Instead, he turns to smaller concerns: care and intimacy, friendship and commitment. In one of the best moments of the novel, Simon suggests that Eileen wants, but can’t bring herself to ask, declarations of love. She wants to hear, “Eileen, I love you very much, you are my best friend”, but she is “attracted to people who are not very good at giving… these answers”. Alice’s romantic vocation, Eileen’s desire for self-assurance: the fact that we often cannot choose our attachments threatens the self-image of Rooney’s characters as free, autonomous and rational people – and yet, Rooney seems to suggest, it is this very interdependence that provides an anchor, meaning when meaning may seem transient or transactional. This is something the contemporary novel can talk about: not the meaning of a generation, but the daily mess of being in relationship.
Beautiful people, where are you
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$ 28 | 368 p.