From the author of Normal People. Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?
Typically, contemporary novelists speak reverently of their form, as if the result were some kind of sacred object, so Alice’s position has a refreshing lack of mummery. But Rooney undermines her character’s point by making her own novels so uncannily enthralling. In summary, her books sound like trifles of no particular interest, but in execution they’re as habit-forming as crack ... A confession: I find the ideological garment-rending and hair-tearing of Rooney’s protagonists endearingly comical ... The contrast between the way these people talk about the world, the performative doom ’n’ glooming so prevalent in social media and casual conversation, and their actual, lived concerns seems the point of Rooney’s fiction. It’s ironic in the original sense of the word ... the ordinary loneliness of Rooney’s characters can be piercing ... Their stumbling progress through the minefield of intimacy, related in Rooney’s plain prose and via several exquisitely-rendered sex scenes, has the raw, wincing tenderness of skin under a scab scratched off too soon. That literary characters serve as moral exemplars seems a childish thing to expect, and a foolish one. A novel about characters of impeccably non-gestural Marxist politics sounds both hard to imagine and fairly dull. What I, in my shameless bourgeois complacency, prefer is that the characters in a novel be, as Rooney’s are, eminently human.
... the arid, intense melancholy of a Hopper painting ... particularly passages written in Eileen’s voice, Rooney sheds the stiff pelt of scene-building and attains a clarity reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s in her Outline trilogy ... is carefully formless and its characters are fluent in our lingua franca of systemic collapse, that neoliberal patter of learned helplessness in the face of larger capital and labor systems ... kind of a vibey omniscience that proceeds by way of spare descriptions. Rooney writes scenes as though she had to type them out on a TI-89. Nouns and verbs. This can be lovely, as when she describes empty rooms or the touch of someone’s hand on a wrist. Her writing about sex is taut and direct. It’s a narrative style I associate with the films of Andrew Haigh and Joanna Hogg, two great visual poets of social anxiety and reticence ... Rooney’s dialogue is frequently perfect, so perfect that it occasionally turns into a flaw. That is, Rooney’s characters speak as though they’re in a ’90s rom-com or else the adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel ... at times it feels like a hammy line reading. Much like their compatriots—narrators from novels by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Andrew Martin—Rooney’s characters chatter about the pointlessness of feeling that the world is too far gone to do anything about even as they seem to agree that our problems tower high above our heads ... In my less charitable moments, it felt as though we’ve reached a point in our culture where the pinnacle of moral rigor in the novel form is an overwhelmed white woman in a major urban center sighing and having a thought about the warming planet or the existence of refugees ... I found the novel’s defensiveness about the moral dubiousness of its aesthetic project kind of charming, but also frustrating. Yet, for all that, Beautiful World, Where Are You is Rooney’s best novel yet. Funny and smart, full of sex and love and people doing their best to connect.
... despite spirited inquiries into these subjects, Rooney’s fiction to this point remains philosophically anchored in the realms of friendship and romance ... Alice is a more obvious avatar for Rooney than Eileen, but it can feel as if the author, a former debate champion, is having Socratic conversations with herself through the correspondence between the two ... Though people might crave to parse or market the voice of a generation, Rooney is up to very old-fashioned things. Alice and Eileen’s emails are digital, but as the equivalent of 15-page handwritten letters they feel downright anachronistic ... When Rooney does write about social media and texting, their presence is perfectly organic, and she’s smart about their texture and effects ... In a novelist’s hands, as in real life, technology is what one makes of it. It’s difficult to sell 'actual lol' as a brutally emotional and telling line, but Rooney does ... Rooney’s people are reflective of their time and milieu — like most convincing characters — and it’s true that some of their qualities will be perplexing to those north of 40 ... Rooney is by all accounts plenty earnest herself, but she has the necessary gift of complicating that — even poking fun at it — in her work ... Rooney writes directly, convincingly, hotly about sex. These scenes arrive with such well-timed frequency that 'erotica' doesn’t seem an unfair subcategory for the books ... Impassioned, intellectual 20-somethings discussing their vexed feelings for one another is a road made mostly of potholes. Rooney avoids almost all of them. The fact that her characters speak and feel the way they do while rarely making the reader feel embarrassed for them is an achievement. It’s an uncomfortable line to toe, but Rooney succeeds by standing so close to it ... The novel’s thoughts on fame are among its least inspired ... Rooney might refine her inquiries into her own popularity over time, or she might just go on profitably writing about the questions that have paved the way to that popularity: 'Have I hurt you, do you love me, will you always.'