The novel seems to be in dire straits. The best novels are almost exclusively the old ones, which leaves literary connoisseurs wondering where to find fresh highbrow literature. Declining book reading, a preference for film, and digital distractions all contribute to this unfortunate state of affairs.
Joseph Bottum’s 2019 The Decline of the Novel proclaimed that the novel has failed because, for the modern mind, nature’s sense of purpose has been vacated. We got here because individual conscience and belief took on unprecedented significance with the outpouring of Protestantism, according to Bottum. With this theological shift came broader cultural interest in the human subject. Since its birth in the seventeenth century, the novel’s defining trait was its focus on personal development (e.g., John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). Over the centuries, as the novel become more interested in exploring the drama of human psychology, it became bound by the confines of the human skull. It struggled to contemplate realities external to the mind—both the world’s natural structure and its stranger, supernatural features. Because of its shortsighted imagination and excessively humanistic form, the novel was bound eventually to become exhausted and wither, according to Bottum, as it apparently has today.
Thirty-year-old writer Sally Rooney, who has been called “the first great millennial novelist,” published her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You? last year amid these unfortunate literary conditions. Beautiful World explores the friendship and lives of two 30ish-year-old women with Hemingwayesque prose. Rooney’s characters are Alice, who is a famous young novelist (like Rooney), and Eileen, who is a criminally underpaid editor at a literary magazine. Alice and Eileen’s friendship is long distance, but their stories are commingled through ponderous, wandering email exchanges about sex, capitalism, family drama, literature, and Jesus.
Their emails reveal their various frustrations about the world and their own lives, which often bleed together. Both characters constantly lament unjust social systems that leave some of the world’s population overfed and wasteful, others starving and needy. They’re also weighed down by guilt and self-loathing because they never do anything about any these injustices. Instead, one writes stories about sex and friendship, and the other spends her days monotonously copy-editing.
This disconnect between, on the one hand, what seems objectively important and, on the other hand, how they actually spend their time, weighs quite heavily on Alice and Eileen. They’re both (especially Eileen) plagued by feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps projecting their own sense of self-disgust onto their surroundings, Eileen and Alice also loathe the traces of consumerism covering twenty-first-century civilization. Eileen writes to Alice in one email, “I know we agree that civilization is presently in its decadent declining phase, and that lurid ugliness is the predominant visual feature of modern life. Cars are ugly, buildings are ugly, mass-produced disposable plastics are unspeakably ugly.”
Beautiful World also ponders the profound disenchantment that has overtaken not just society, but also the novel. Eileen observes, “Our quality of life is in decline, and along with it, the quality of aesthetic experience available to us. The contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions) irrelevant.” Alice excoriates contemporary literary culture, in which writers are totally self-consumed, shamelessly cater to elite audiences, and salivate for flattering reviews in The New York Times.
Yet between these dejected reflections, Rooney intersperses moments charged with hope. Eileen writes to Alice, “Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even where 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?” Perhaps, Rooney seems to suggest, the ugliness Alice and Eileen see in themselves and society isn’t their final verdict on life.
Alice even confesses that she, despite her seemingly better instincts and disbelief in God, loves Jesus. She writes to Eileen: “I am fascinated and touched by the ‘personality’ of Jesus, in a rather sentimental, arguably even maudlin way. Everything about his life moves me. . . . I do love him, and I can’t even pretend that it’s only the same love I feel for Prince Myshkin, or for Charles Swann, or for Isabel Archer.” Nonetheless, she writes, “I don’t, as such, really ‘believe’ that Jesus was resurrected after his death. . . . I have a strong liking and affection for him and I feel moved when I contemplate his life and death. That’s all.”
Despite these fleeting hopes, Rooney’s characters ultimately seem destined for tragedy. Because they don’t commit to a comprehensive doctrine of some kind—a far-reaching account of reality’s complexities—other things fill in the vacuum. Politics, sex, and personal achievement take on more existential significance than they can bear. Alice writes to Eileen: “I can’t believe that the difference between right and wrong is simply a matter of taste or preference; but I also can’t bring myself to believe in absolute morality, which is to say, in God. This leaves me in a philosophical nowhere place, lacking the courage of my convictions on both sides.” Such beliefs leave a person stuck in a twilight zone of provisionality, with uncertainty becoming her default doctrine.
Yet life’s daily toils and trials demand decisiveness, which is something skepticism can’t give. So solidity and direction must be found elsewhere, in the most real things available: the righteousness of political efforts to help the marginalized; the caress of another person’s body. But what happens when the ardor of politics becomes unchained from prudence and reason, and you can no longer go along with it? And what if the man you’re sleeping with offers you a cruel word that cuts deep, immediately after you share your bed with him and tell him you love him—as Alice’s love interest does to her? What’s left?
Perhaps earlier generations embedded in thick communities and social networks could somehow get by (though probably not thrive) in philosophical nowhere places. They had spouses, parents, children, extended family, social circles who could help navigate the intellectual and material difficulties of existence. But Rooney’s novel reveals that our time of social breakdown and digital mediation, in which young people aren’t marrying, going out, or having children, doesn’t let us escape the full burdens of comprehensive agnosticism. It leaves Alice and Eileen perpetually cynical about everything, mistrustful of each other, and aloof from everyone.
Rooney, as we’ve seen, is quite aware of the default skepticism’s corrosive effects on both daily life and contemporary literature—and how the fates of both are intertwined. If Bottum is right that the novel is by definition tightly bound to the human subject, then contemporary novels will suffer from the same decay and corrosion from which the contemporary soul suffers. No amount of fluorescent language, crisp prose, or narrative finesse would resurrect the novel from this fate. Under this reading, the novel would inevitably be handicapped by skepticism, unable to break free of its debilitating confines.
And yet, despite the uneasy state of both the novel and the world, the human soul remains remarkably resilient and fascinating. Eileen and Alice can’t deny that they desperately want to be happy. Though it’s often troubled, their friendship seems to find genuine depth, and they’re able to really love and forgive each other for past incursions. Their interplay of ideas leads them to breathtaking intellectual precipices, beyond which they peer at the fathomless love and grace of a God who seems to them just too good to be true.
So too for young minds: they desperately want to find more to life than righteous politics and mediocre sex with strangers but aren’t sure where to turn. They cope with existential confusion by partaking in the internet’s counterfeit connectivity and convenience, rarely accepting the possibility that some things that seem too good can somehow also be true. Like the contemporary novel, they struggle to see past their inner lives into a world that would show them their place within it and endow them with purpose.
Even though they never leave their philosophical nowhere places, moments of intense illumination break into Alice’s and Eileen’s lives anyway. At the very end of the novel (spoiler alert!), Eileen finds herself pregnant with the child of the man she’s loved since childhood. When she breaks the news to him, they seem aware that they’ve reached something sacred that decaying literature, personal anxiety, and a broken society can’t possibly touch.