The Millennial Voice

The term millennial has become ubiquitous nowadays. It has become a vogue, like a social branding that one carries around. Also popularly referred to as Generation Y, or Gen Y, millennials pertain to a demographic group that bridge Generation X and Generation Z. The children of baby boomers and early Generation Xers, Generation Y typically covers people who were born between 1981 and 1996. Generation Y is also characterized by several firsts. Born in a period of globalization, Generation Y is considered to be the first global generation. On the backdrop, the generation grew up in a period of rapid technological development, making it as well the first generation to grow in the Internet age. The advent of social media earned the generation the moniker digital natives. Among the members of the generation, growing awareness of different social and global concerns also distinguishes it from its predecessor.

Over the past few years, the voices of the generation are making their way into the world of literature. Slowly but surely, they are rising above the din to create their niche. Among the voices that have emerged in the past few years, Irish writer Sally Rooney is establishing herself as one of the representatives of the millennial voice. In her first two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, she has demonstrated her masterful construction of the millennial novel. Three years after the publication of her commercially and critically successful sophomore novel, Rooney made her literary comeback in 2021 with her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You.

In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney transports the readers again to her native Ireland. The story revolved around the experiences of a quartet of characters, in their late twenties or early thirties, whose lives intersected in the Irish capital.  Alice Kelleher has found an unexpected calling as a novelist. Her works found instantaneous success, hence, earning her celebrity status. Her success also meant that she can live comfortably any way she chooses. Her friend, Eileen Lydon, on the other hand, does not have the luxury that she has. Their friendship was formed during their university days when they found themselves sharing a room together. They kept their communication lines open even after they graduated and pursued their separate paths: Alice, as a celebrity novelist, and Eileen, as the quintessential office worker, a magazine editor.

“Walking around, even on a bad day, I would see things – I mean just the things that were in front of me. People’s faces, the weather, traffic. The smell of petrol from the garage, the feeling of being rained on, completely ordinary things. And in that way even the bad days were good, because I felt them and remembered feeling them. There was something delicate about living like that – like I was an instrument and the world touched me and reverberated inside me.

~ Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

Simon Costigan and Eileen grew alongside each other as neighbors in the Irish countryside. An only son, Simon was five years older than Eileen. However, despite their proximity, Eileen and Simon barely had any memorable interactions until they were teenagers. Once they have established deeper connections, their friendship blossomed; their friendship saw them through as they navigate adulthood. Completing the quartet is Felix Brady, a warehouse worker who Alice met on Tinder. In the opening sequence of the novel, he met Alice in a hotel bar. Felix did not have an iota of Alice’s celebrity status and their first date was awkward. But as fate would have it, their paths would intersect again. On this second chance meeting, Alice asked Felix out-of-the-blue to accompany her to Rome for her book tour event. At first, he was reluctant but eventually relented.

Beautiful World, Where Are You, like Rooney’s other works, doesn’t rely on an intricate plot. Rather, Rooney traded a vigorous plot for a character-driven narrative. It was her comfort zone, conjuring characters, fleshing them out, and writing about their profound experiences. Rooney’s pen captures how these characters navigate life’s curves and how they respond to the oddballs that life throws at them. Indeed, it was the four main characters that propelled the story forward. Rooney drove the readers into the interiors of the main characters. We learn about their individual concerns, their insecurities, their doubts, and even their anxieties. The intricate details of their routines, a mixture of both awkward and profound scenes, made the heft of the novel. It was a world of the mundane yet filled with intricacies and complexities. Indeed, where is the beauty that the world promised?

Rooney captured the individual concerns of the characters but the novel’s main concerns revolved around relationships, in their different forms. The novel extensively explored the dynamics of relationships, from their development to their ever-expanding horizons. To further elucidate on relationships, Rooney structured the novel in a manner wherein the readers follow two distinct plotlines. As the story moved forward, it became increasingly apparent that the story focus of the story was the developing love lines between Alice and Felix, and Eileen and Simon. Several facets of romantic relationships were tackled by the story but the most prevalent was sex. Details and conversations on sexual relationships seeped through the story.

However, the novel did not reduce itself into a mere exploration of two romantic quadrants. Its exploration of relationships went beyond romance as it also explored the dynamics of family relationships. It was prominently depicted through the tenuous relationships between Eileen and her older sister, Lola, and Felix and his brother. The story also explored the relationships between the characters, with the spotlight focusing on the friendship between Eileen and Alice. It was as not as robust as it seemed. There were unresolved issues that were left unspoken, such as why Eileen chose to befriend Alice when Eileen was the popular one and Alice was the odd-one-out. The cracks of their relationship were further emphasized by Felix in one confrontation scene with Eileen. Was their friendship what they made it sound to be?

“At times I think of human relationships as something soft like sand or water, and by pouring them into particular vessels we give them shape. So a mother’s relationship with her daughter is poured into a vessel marked ‘mother and child’, and the relationship takes the contours of its container and is held inside there, for better or worse. Maybe some unhappy friends would have been perfectly contented as sisters, or married couples as parents and children, who knows. But what would it be like to form a relationship with no preordained shape of any kind? Just to pour the water out and let it fall. I suppose it would take no shape, and run off in all directions.”

~ Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

If there was one word that could aptly capture Rooney’s third novel, it would be loquacious. It was a book that talked, a lot. Most of the story was portrayed through conversations and interactions between the characters. It was also the primary means through which the characters established relationships with each other. Ironically, many things were left unsaid. There was a tendency for the characters to misunderstand or misinterpret the actions of their peers and lovers. It was these things left unsaid, left unresolved, that left gaping holes and created tensions. Most of the misunderstandings would have been resolved had the characters communicated. In these times when communications seem easier because of different media, it was ironic how most of us find it challenging to communicate or express our most innate feelings. The realistic portrayal of this facet of modern relationships was one of the novel’s finer points.

In between the endless conversations, the novel was accentuated by email interludes between Alice and Eileen. By using email as a primary communication tool, Rooney subtly underlined the strides made in technology, as well as our increasing reliance on it. It was through these conversations between the friends that the readers get a glimpse of their opinions and thoughts on a bevy of seminal and timely subjects, such as politics, consumerism, class-consciousness, climate anxieties, capitalism, religion, and life in general. One of their more meaningful conversations dwelt on beauty and its definitions. However, the email interjections came across as distractions, and, while the exploration of the different subjects provided a deeper profile of Alice and Eileen, the impact was fleeting at best.

One prevalent subject detailed in the narrative was sexuality and identity. Both Alice and Felix admitted that they were bisexual; gender rarely mattered to them when they get into a relationship. There was a depth in their conversations vis-a-vis bisexual relationships, on all types of relationships transcending gender norms, and even biphobia. These discourses provided the story a deeper complexion, a contrast to the smattering of the email exchanges. It was this blunt discourse on sexuality and identity that was one of the manifestations of the millennial voice of the story. Other prominent facets of the millennial culture that trickled into the story were the hook-up culture and the aversion to raise or have children.

Understandably so, the characters all possessed flaws. It was these flaws that were meant to establish connections with the readers. While their flaws were relatable, what floated to the surface was the characters’ lack of depth, and purpose, particularly in their desires and motivations. There was a lot of push and pull, a lot of actions for which the underlying motivations were barely explored, and even if they were, they came off as shallow. Especially at the start, the characters came off as superfluous despite their angst and their anxieties. The women came off as desperate while the men were portrayed as jerks. Alice, for instance, fell in love with Felix but she cannot elucidate on why or what drew her to him. Felix kept pushing her away, but at the same time, he kept coming back because he knew she will take her in.

“Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive – because we are so stupid about each other.”

~ Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

As the story moved forward, one can only expect character development, even perhaps a eureka moment. However, it became increasingly palpable that the novel’s primary concern was the romantic dynamics between Eileen and Simon and Alice and Felix. The focus on the romantic elements obscured what could have been a more robust growth, not that there were any opportunities for it to happen. Eileen and Alice, for instance, can settle all their personal issues. Somehow, Simon and Felix always found themselves in their line of sight. Even a reconciliation between Lola and Eileen was undermined by Simon’s name and presence. A scene towards the end of the novel was meant to be a catharsis but it was poorly conceived. The characters cannot be faulted for their flaws but the lack of actual growth on their behalf undermined the overall impact of the story. There were also missed opportunities. Alice, being a novelist who published two successful works, was projected as the author’s alter-ego but little was explored about this facet of her life.

Despite its flaws, what came across was the beauty of Rooney’s prose. The conversation-laden narrative, sans any quotation marks, was still compelling because Rooney has the knack for reeling the readers in with her writing alone. She managed to draw readers in with her immersive dialogues and scenes. However, as the story moved forward, the paragraphs started becoming more tedious. A single paragraph, comprised of both conversations and narratives, can fill a page or two. Discussions on sex are typical in fiction but there was something about how Rooney detailed these scenes that made it seem almost voyeuristic. There were some unnecessary details and scenes, some bordering cringy. The phone call between Eileen and Simon was particularly cringe-worthy.

While it was undone by its blunders and missed opportunities, Beautiful World, Where Are You still had its bright spots. It showcased the excellence of Rooney’s writing and language. It flowed diaphanously. She has a mastery of integrating immersive conversations with astute observations of quotidian scenes. In her third novel, she fleshed four flawed but interesting characters. The story was anchored on relationships, from friendly to platonic to familial, and their dynamics and facets. Its preoccupation, however, was on the complexities and intricacies of romantic relationships and of words left unsaid. Nevertheless, Rooney was able to explore underscore a plethora of subjects, with the discourse on sexuality and identity among the most prevalent and most lush.

Ratings

54%

Characters (30%) – 16%
Plot (30%) – 
13%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

Back in 2019, one of the books that piqued my interest was Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I have never heard of Rooney before but the book’s title sounded unexpectedly dull, which further drew me in. I ended up including the book in my 2019 Books I Look Forward To List. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of the book and before the year ended, I was finally able to dip my fingers into it. While I love the lyrical quality of Irish prose, I was underwhelmed by Normal People. The main characters were flawed, which was fine, but they were also unlikable. My previous experience with Normal People kept me off Rooney’s works and when news of her new work, Beautiful World, Where Are You, flooded my newsfeed, I was barely curious. In the end, the mixed reviews confused me so I overcame my reservations to experience the book on my own. The start of the book was fine, as Rooney was laying out the landscape of her latest work. However, it got more tedious as the story moved forward. Like in her previous novels, none of the characters were likable, which was fine, but nothing much happened in the story. I kept expecting a robust character development but, alas, none came. One thing, however, was evident in Rooney’s works: her language flowed and was breathtaking.

Book Specs

Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 353
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Synopsis

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a breakup, and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

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. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. 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?

About the Author

To learn more about rising Irish writer Sally Rooney, click here.