Beautiful World, Where Are You

This book did not get universally good reviews. And that’s significant, because its author, Sally Rooney, is the latest literary phenom.

Oh, you know her, even if you didn’t read her two previous books. She’s the one behind “Normal People,” on Hulu, which everybody was raving about last year. I tried, but once again the images did not square with the ones in my head, because so much of what Rooney writes is internal, not external, and visual entertainment is inherently external, which is another reason why some of the greatest books have never been made into movies or TV shows.

So, Rooney wrote about young life. Adolescence. College. Now what?

It’s hard to grow up, especially in the public eye, with so many expectations. And people believe they know who you are, they’re invested in your work, and reviewers, who usually are writers themselves, are out to get you, because they wish they’d gotten the acclaim you did.

So at first I’m reading “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” and I’m wondering what the blowback is all about, I’m really digging it, it’s great. But then…it becomes a bit repetitive, and the paragraphs are long, and I was getting sleepy, but then the second half of the book picked up and I finished it in one marathon jaunt Saturday afternoon.

So, what you’ve got here is two college friends, who profess nerdiness, who grew up without many friends and now have each other, even though in many ways they’re different.

Alice is a writer. She graduated, wrote a book and had instant success. She’s a millionaire, even though she’s barely thirty. Eileen is only making 20,000 a year at a literary magazine. So they’re living in two completely different economic strata, and that makes a difference. Although they’re both looking for love.

So Alice had her success and then had a nervous breakdown. She’s decamped for the west coast of Ireland, the other side of the country from Eileen’s Dublin, and she’s trying to start her life again and recover. And she goes on a Tinder date…

Yes, the book is very up to date. And it assumes you’re familiar with the experience. Rooney is not here to educate the reader, get up to speed on your own. As a matter of fact, the book is endless navel-gazing, which means many people will pick it up and be offended, talk about first world problems and move on. But although there’s nothing worse than having no money, no food and shelter, the truth is we’re all human beings and we’re all struggling, otherwise why would Christina Onassis commit suicide?

And most of the book is e-mail correspondence between Alice and Eileen, and it reads almost like a Greta Thunberg screed. The old fat cats, mostly men, may be in charge of the world, but it’s the youngsters who are gonna have to live in it. And they’re fiercely aware of global warming and the inane political situation, and Alice and Eileen write about this and debate how to live in modern society.

I mean it’s really frustrating. Do you read the news? Watching it is not the same. Bottom line, the world is insane, and America is one of the worst offenders. We now have a new Covid variant yet people are still refusing vaccination. The odds of dying are 11x higher if you’re unvaxxed, but if you get the vax you’ve surrendered, amongst your group your character is at stake. Never mind voting laws and… Nothing is gonna change, you can’t convince anybody to change their mind, you’ve just got to deal with the consequences. I mean I’m old and I live in California, but if you’re young and live elsewhere, it’s even more depressing,.

And the truth is what Alice and Eileen talk about…is what I talked about in college.

Today nobody wants to debate the issues, they’re too busy getting rich, or trying to. Subtleties are irrelevant, and if it doesn’t produce cash it’s off the table. So, you can be a college professor and analyze issues all day yet have no power in the real world, or you can be a businessman and focus on acquisition and lifestyle.

I used to think it was a west coast/east coast thing, but now that the nouveau riche financial sector dominates in NYC it’s all about money there too. And I want to have a deeper conversation and where can I turn? Certainly not the music business. But the musicians? They can debate this stuff all day long, they’re detached from society, they know the game is rigged, they’re inherently outsiders and they recognize this. But I’m not a musician, so it’s not my everyday life experience and…

I certainly don’t want to be part of the intelligentsia, self-righteous sans power.

So I’m left in between, with more questions than answers, like Alice and Eileen.

Alice is into a guy who is not into her. How do you behave? Retreat or lean in?

Eileen was dumped by a musician who is featured everywhere online and can’t get over the relationship even though all her friends put her ex down and say he wasn’t right for her, none of that that sways Eileen.

And then you’ve got the guy in love with Eileen who can’t get out of his own way. Everybody’s on their own life trip, and other than Alice, nobody is going anywhere fast, and Alice has got her status and money, her fame…but then she riffs how bogus fame is, that most of the people are doing it for the fame, and then people admire them and want to be them and how screwed up that is.

You can put your head down and ignore the world around you, but if you look up at all, you’re gonna have an existential crisis. Hell, we can’t even build anything in America anymore. That’s in today’s paper. All this money for infrastructure…all our projects go over budget and sometimes they’re not even completed!

And then you’ve got the Dems wanting to prop up local newspapers. Uh, no. Haven’t they seen twenty years of digital disruption? You don’t prop up the past, you look for a solution that will work tomorrow!

And then you’ve got the insane Afghanistan situation. The “Wall Street Journal” did a story today how the Taliban had infiltrated every aspect of the government and business, over years, so that’s why the coup was instant and to a great degree bloodless. But somehow it’s Biden’s fault, when he was living up to Trump’s timetable, intelligence officers were removed and… If you dig deep, thank god we got out of there, and Biden didn’t do such a bad job at all. But even Democrats think he was at fault, because they don’t read the facts, never mind them being in the right wing paper of record!

Feel powerless yet?

I certainly do.

Alice and Eileen are struggling to put one foot in front of the other. They’ve got the weight of the world on their shoulders and like me feel powerless to enact change. Should they just punt their futures as a result?

So I don’t recommend you read “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” Not unless my foregoing screed appeals to you. And most of my male readers only want to read nonfiction, when they’ll learn much more from this book and yes, the girls are whiners by today’s standards, but if you’re not whining, you’re an automaton.

So Sally Rooney is trying to grow up. And it’s a struggle. Obviously Alice is based on her own experience. I mean the best writing is from what you know.

And Rooney herself is not lovable. As for her stance on not allowing this book to be translated into Hebrew… If I hear one more person excoriating the Israelis and defending the Palestinians… Yes, they both have positives and negatives, but the Palestinians believe that Israel SHOULD NOT EXIST! How would you like living in a country like that? Put that in your book Sally Rooney.

But it’s not there. But so many issues are.

I found it stimulating.

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