By Olivia Fong

As the title suggests, Rooney’s brilliant third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You is about four young adults who weave in and out of each others’ paths, and how they grapple with the monotony of their lives in the midst of the modern dating landscape. In true Rooney fashion, character interactions are what propel the story forward. Disparate from her first two books, Beautiful World is a mature departure, perhaps her most existential, with older characters and her Marxism cranked up to an all-time high. 

Not only do the discussions around beauty concern the aesthetic experience of existing, but they also reveal the role of consumerism in contributing to collective despair. In an intimate confession via email to Eileen, Alice reveals she’s come to a realization, after a visit to the local shop, that “All the various brands of soft drinks in plastic bottles and all the pre-packaged lunch deals and confectionery in sealed bags and store-baked pastries – this is it, the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations. All for this” (Rooney 18). But she cannot dwell too long on her guilt, because “[she] still [has] to buy lunch” (Rooney 19). This is the moral dilemma our generation faces: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Even the fiercest opposers must participate in indirect oppression, a burden so unspeakably heavy that it weighs upon every decision one makes and elicits nihilism. Believing civilization is on a decline from anthropologic  greed, Alice writes her grievances to share: “Cars are ugly, buildings are ugly, mass-produced disposable consumer goods are unspeakably ugly. The air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is full of microplastics, and our food is contaminated by cancerous Teflon chemicals… mainstream cinema is family-friendly nightmare porn funded by car companies and the US Department of Defense; and visual art is primarily a commodity market for oligarchs,” and thus she longs for a time “before our shared cultural forms degraded into mass marketing and before our cities and towns became anonymous employment hubs” (Rooney 219). 

Through Alice’s email exchange with Eileen, the literature poses a fundamental question: Is it possible to find happiness when the Earth is decaying at an incomprehensibly fast rate, people still have to worry about where their next meal will come from, and our careers start to feel more like prisons? 

A martyr with a persistent savior complex, Simon, Eileen’s on-again-off-again lover, feels helpless by the limited influence he has as an advisor of a left-wing parliamentary group. In conversation with Felix, who thinks it is admirable that Simon is working to help asylum seekers, Simon feels uneased. Deflecting from the compliment, Simon “[feels] increasingly frustrated with his work, because all he really did was go to meetings and write reports that no one ever read” (Rooney 273). Simon feels as if his work is meaningless if he cannot fulfill the very duty he is hired for and is unable to make a difference for the people who rely on him as a government official. Whether he cares about these issues or not is irrelevant—at the end of the day, “Most of the time [he’s] going about [his] life like it’s not even happening” (Rooney 273). In reality, while he meets with these people who need help everyday for his job, most of the time, he’s thinking about girls (well, specifically Eileen). Felix smiles at his humility. While this might seem like an insignificant moment in the grand scheme of the melodrama, this exchange perfectly encapsulates the message of the novel: in order to cope with feeling small, feeling powerless to make an impact, feeling unfulfilled, one can meaning in their bonds with loved ones. 

Unlike Simon, novelist Alice’s dissatisfaction with her career stems from her need to commodify herself, at the expense of her privacy, in order to market her book. In an email to Eileen, Alice expresses her grievances with her unwanted fame, where she writes “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” (Rooney 59). She believes her novels should stand independently as a piece of art, regardless of what her personality is like since that shouldn’t interfere with the reading experience. Under public scrutiny, Alice feels miserable, even after achieving success in what she thinks is her dream occupation. While she realizes this is a very privileged problem to be experiencing, she can’t help but be upset over the ridiculousness of it all. Part of this dissatisfaction comes hand in hand with self-loathing induced by feeling exposed. “I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy…” Alice admits solemnly, “And yet when other people read about her, they believe that she is me” (Rooney 60). Unfortunately, Alice’s experiences resonate deeply with other artists, who feel as though they cannot be vulnerable without being exploited. How does one reckon with selling their pain for profit? Why do we, as consumers, feel entitled to disrespect artists we don’t know personally? Could it be that we view them as products of our entertainment and not as human beings? 

Through the character of Alice, Rooney indirectly addresses her critics who dismiss her novels as “frivolous.” Though she acknowledges the average contemporary novelist has probably attained enough success that they are out of touch with the ordinary life they write about. For the reader to become invested in a novel about ordinary life, the author must suppress the horrid realities of most humans. “Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species?” Alice rhetorically asks Eileen in one of their many email exchanges. While Eileen agrees it is indulgent to pretend like those realities don’t exist, she also points out that is what we deal with on a daily basis, and we could wait “to ascend to some higher plane of being, at which point we’ll start directing all our mental and material resources toward existential questions and thinking nothing of our own families, friends, lovers, and so on” (Rooney 118) but, realistically, that’ll probably never happen. But on a more philosophical note, “at the end of our lives, when there’s nothing left in front of us,” we’ll want to talk about the people who we cherish, and “when we should have been reorganizing the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worried about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And [Alice] [loves] that about humanity, and in fact, it’s the very reason [she] [roots] for us to survive – because we are so stupid about each other” (Rooney 119). As selfish as it may seem, our relationships are what keep us sane when it feels like the rest of the world is on fire. That alone makes ordinary life worth writing about. “I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is [Simon], and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me,” Eileen proudly proclaims to Alice, in the emotional crescendo of the novel (Rooney 173). 

Waking up everyday and wandering around aimlessly in a void of deadlines is mentally exhausting enough. To deny and minimize our ability to feel simply because there are more pressing matters out in the world would be doing ourselves an immense disservice. After all, if not for love, if not for memory, if not for the community, if not for the small pleasures, if not for human connection, then is there even a reason to live? 

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