The 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that history is made up of contradictions, and as these contradictions are resolved, human societies move closer to perfection, closer to what he calls “the end of history.” Hegel makes no claims that Progress — that inevitable, amorphous force that drives us toward the ultimate phase in our societal evolution — isn’t messy, but that its trajectory is toward a final good.
The characters in Sally Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” are disillusioned with where Progress has brought them. In their lifetimes, the most dire effects of climate change have become a surety, technological advancements have degraded communication rather than enabled it and the forces of capitalism that have aimed to make society frictionless, allowing easy access to “cheap clothes and imported foods and plastic containers,” have exacerbated poverty globally. The result is a life lived in the shadow of a foreclosed future, a spiritual emptiness that makes nostalgia an appealing prospect. “Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended?” a character jokes.
Both 29, college friends Eileen and Alice now live a few hours away from each other. Eileen is an editorial assistant in Dublin and makes the American equivalent of about $24,000 a year. Alice, a novelist whose uneasy ascent to fame mirrors Rooney’s own, has recently moved to a small seaside town to recover from a mental breakdown. “Beautiful World” would not be a Sally Rooney novel if it did not feature romantic relationships complicated by baffling (but ultimately relatable) miscommunications: Eileen with a childhood friend named Simon who works as a parliamentary aide and Alice with a petulant warehouse worker named Felix she met on Tinder.
While it is the love dynamics that provide the novel with an undeniable electric charge that keeps the pages moving, the most memorable relationship in the novel is that of Eileen and Alice, whose long, discursive emails punctuate the plotted chapters. Their messages are thoughtful Socratic dialogues, only occasionally meandering into the realm of stoned dorm room conversation. In these sections, it becomes clear how much Rooney has developed as a novelist. Discourses that appeared in her past novels merely as memes or breadcrumbs are teased out here, and she is adept at showing how the perennial anxieties that plague millennials — the internet, identity politics, climate change, money — constitute their mental and emotional landscapes.
There is an unfortunate literary tic among millennial (and some older) writers that causes them to qualify their opinions with a preemptive defense, an almost-apology that announces their own privilege as if it were a mandatory disclosure. “Not that I’m comparing my dissatisfaction to the misery of actually oppressed peoples … ,” Eileen, who doesn’t make enough to pay her bills even with two roommates, assures Alice before expressing a completely reasonable unhappiness with the state of the world.
These defenses are a feature of Rooney’s novels because they are a feature of millennial experience; people prefer a shorthand for privilege because the realities of it are too knotty. Whether these qualifications from Rooney’s characters are an intentional critique of this tendency or, more likely, something Rooney herself feels compelled to do as a member of the generation she chronicles, “Beautiful World” seems to want to apologize to the reader for its insufficiently symmetrical politics. This is regrettable; the arguments that Rooney stages between her characters are the most generative parts of the novel precisely because they show how complicated these issues are. As a reader, or perhaps as a critic reading between the lines, I am left with the impression that Rooney wanted to say a bit more.
The primary object of Sally Rooney’s analytical gaze is Sally Rooney herself, which is to the novel’s detriment in the end. Alice, like Rooney, has also written two novels that have elevated the author’s profile on their own ascent to virality. “My sturdy peasant ancestors did little to prepare me for a career as a widely despised celebrity novelist,” laments one of the most beloved writers of our generation.
While some may point out that Rooney’s Vogue profile, her portrait with an owl, as well as the Beautiful World-branded bucket hat and coffee cart belie her expressed discomfort, the realities of writing as an intellectual act have little in common with what it takes to market a book. What is ultimately disconsonant with Rooney’s contempt with her own fame is the way that she allows an interrogation of her own status and the commodification of her work to turn into a rabbit hole so self-referential and decadent that her work loses what actually makes it relatable. At a certain level of fame — perhaps we also see this in the new Kanye West album and to a slightly lesser extent, the new Drake album — an artist’s storytelling can become overtaken by concerns about how they’re understood as a brand, rather than a human with varied experiences. In that way, “Beautiful World” veers from the potential displayed early in the novel. Despite this, it is as delicious and compulsively readable as a Rooney novel ever was, a fitting companion for our journey to the end of history.