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Arts & Culture

'Beautiful World' Is Sally Rooney's Toughest, Most Sweeping Novel To Date

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviewed Irish writer Sally Rooney's second novel "Normal People" in 2019, she said that even if Rooney were to write a novel about bathmats, it would be worth reading. Fortunately, Rooney's latest novel, called "Beautiful World, Where Are You?," is about much more. Here's Maureen's review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Sally Rooney's breathlessly anticipated new novel called "Beautiful World, Where Are You?" features four characters who, among other things, ruminate over whether there's any value to breathlessly anticipated new novels in this age of pandemic and climate change. It's a testament to Rooney's curious, cerebral gifts as a writer that she not only draws her readers into tolerating long stretches of such ruminations but makes them so entertaining. We feel we're in good company with our own end-time anxieties.

Rooney's plaintive title "Beautiful World, Where Are You?" is from a late 18th-century poem suffused with grim nostalgia, yet desperate hope by the German romantic writer Friedrich Schiller. It's a question that her characters figuratively keep asking themselves - beautiful world, where are you? As in "Normal People," her 2018 novel that was made into a Hulu TV series, Rooney focuses on romance, sex, work and its dissatisfactions and the vast chasms of opportunity that divide different social classes. But because the characters here are a bit older, and the world, even in the space of three short years since Rooney's last novel, has become much more frightening. There's also a cosmic dimension to her title question. In other words, will there be a beautiful world left for any of us?

When we first meet her, Alice thinks not. She's waiting at a hotel bar in the west of Ireland for a man she's connected with on Tinder. But having recently suffered a nervous breakdown, Alice is emotionally tamped down to the point where her expectations are minimal. The other thing to know about Alice is that she's an internationally bestselling 29-year-old novelist who loathes her own celebrity. Reflecting on interviews she's given, Alice says, I keep encountering this person who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her appearance. And I hate her opinions about everything. And yet, when other people read about her, they believe that she is me.

Though I know I'm falling into a trap Rooney has set for the critically unsophisticated, I must point out that Alice sounds an awful lot like Rooney herself, who's talked in interviews about her own discomfort with fame. The person Alice is waiting for turns out to be an angry young man named Felix who works in a warehouse. You must think you're very special, sneers Felix early in their relationship. His resentment fuels a fair amount of hostile sex, one of Rooney's other signatures as a novelist. The quartet is rounded out by Alice's best friend from college, Eileen, who's the least guarded and most psychologically astute of the group. She toils as an editor for a small literary magazine. And then there's Simon, a charming political functionary. Simon and Eileen are childhood friends who've been intermittently sexually involved, but they keep each other at a distance to preserve their friendship.

Rooney vividly traces the shifting amoeba-like shapes of these relationships in her distinctive, expository prose style that reads like a late capitalist homage to Hemingway. For instance, two sentences here detail how Eileen removes and disposes of the cling film on her microwave dinner. But in this ambitious novel of sentiment and ideas, which is so up to the minute in its global concerns, Rooney ironically reaches back to one of the oldest forms of the novel, the epistolary or letter form, to tell her story. Long emails and texts, mostly between Alice and Eileen, contemplate not only their muddled romantic relationships, but also liken the general system's collapse of the late Bronze Age to the political and climate disasters of the present. At one point, Alice writes to Eileen about her terrific crush on Felix and wraps up by saying, so, of course, in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?

It's striking that in this, Rooney's toughest and most sweeping novel to date, that what's tentatively affirmed at the end are exactly the things Alice has mentioned in that letter, sex and friendship, personal bonds between human beings. Yet the frequently unbeautiful world beckons, demands the characters engagement even as they flinch from it. Rooney's novel, like all great fiction, is open-ended. It's given to an ambivalence that runs from the author through her narrative to us readers. Are we really, as Schiller writes, left only with word deprived of soul? Rooney isn't sure. Instead, she entices us into her own dark uncertainty, where, remarkably, we enjoy spending time.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Sally Rooney's new novel "Beautiful World, Where Are You?" If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Joy Harjo, the first Native American to be appointed U.S. poet laureate or our remembrance of actor Michael K. Williams featuring two interviews with him from our archive, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.