By Sarah Brouillette
Beautiful World, Where Are You is a literary romance novel that follows two attractive couples casually dating, figuring out what they want from one another, and then settling into what seem like fairly stable traditional heteronormative units. It knowingly engages the reception of Rooney’s two other novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), which are also about attractive young couples forming and unravelling. The novel’s two main characters, best friends Alice and Eileen, contemplate their generation’s expected rejection of heterosexual couple formation, and conclude that in throwing away the promise of such romance woman have left themselves with little else. In the eyes of the novel the resulting absence is especially acute because the world is full of miserable inequity and suffering. There is so little that is sustaining in these conditions, aside from intimate love relationships. Alice writes to Eileen:
“People our age used to get married and have children and conduct love affairs, and now everyone is still single at thirty and lives with housemates they never see. Traditional marriage was obviously not fit for purpose and almost ubiquitously ended in one kind of failure or another, but at least it was an effort at something, and not just a sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life. Of course, if we all stay alone and practice celibacy and carefully police our personal boundaries, many problems will be avoided, but it seems we will also have almost nothing left that makes life worthwhile. I guess you could say the old ways of being together were wrong – they were! – and that we didn’t want to repeat old mistakes – we didn’t. But when we tore down what confined us, what did we have in mind to replace it? I offer no defence of coercive heterosexual monogamy, except that it was at least a way of doing things, a way of seeing life through” (186). “What do we have now? Instead?” she adds. “Nothing” (187).
Here we see the choice for today’s young women starkly presented: either “sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life,” or the consolations of heterosexual coupledom. A penis in place of the void, if you will.
And as it happens they find particular solace in ostensibly non-coerced subordination to their partners. Indebted perhaps to Fleabag’s “hot priest” storyline, Eileen positions Simon, an older man and devout Christian she’s known since childhood, as a savior giving meaning and direction to her life. “You have this primal desire to subjugate and possess me. It’s very masculine. I think it’s sexy” (273), she tells him. She says to Alice, just before she and Simon do finally settle down together, pregnant and contemplating marriage, “I just have this sense that if Simon had taken me under his wing earlier in life, it might have turned out a lot better” (248).
Wanting the man to be dominant is presented as good and not demeaning to the woman – it’s a choice now, not “coercive.” What is demeaning to women is something else, identified when Alice discovers that her boyfriend Felix, a working-class guy she met on a dating app, has been watching porn featuring “rough anal” on his phone: “In the top thumbnail a woman was shown kneeling on a chair, with a man behind her holding her by the throat.” Alice confronts Felix: “You like to watch videos of horrible things happening to vulnerable women, and you want me to say what? That’s fine?” (120) He speculates that she’s jealous of them – jealous that he finds them sexy, and she responds: “no, I’m not jealous of anyone who has to degrade themselves for money. I consider myself lucky I don’t have to” (121). Alice’s distinction between sex work and her own labor here is surprisingly automatic, and she softens it later, apologizing and saying “I don’t even think that, really.” How to account for her initial reaction?
To begin with, throughout the novel characters worry about how to live meaningful lives, mindful of an imperative to achieve respectable participation in society via a morally valorized job. Simon is good because he does progressive policy work, and that he worries about what difference it really makes only adds to his moral stature; Alice is maybe good but not fully convinced that writing novels is doing much for the world, although it is certainly socially esteemed, and again, that she worries about this is a mark of distinction; Eileen is at least in a creative career although it is not overly fulfilling and pays very little; Felix, a warehouse worker, is basically pitied because his working conditions are “not fair,” as Alice laments, upon discovering that he has injured his hand one day. Except for Felix, who needs some domestication via Alice, they are all routinely worried about “contributing something to the world.” In anger, they accuse each other of not having “contributed something” (314).
It is in part this ambient anxiety, featuring characters who are, much like Rooney herself, plagued by a sense of their own purposelessness, that helps to explain the urge to frame sex work as the realm of the truly non-contributing exploited, or as Annie McClanahan and Jon-David Settell have recently put it, as “the terminal point of an unbearable and unspeakable abjection.”  For Alice the kneejerk urge to distinguish between sex work and her own vocation is perhaps especially acute given her experience of her own celebrity. She writes to Eileen: “And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing. So why, why, is it done this way? Whose interests does it serve? It makes me miserable, keeps me away from the one thing in my life that has any meaning […] serves to arrange literary discourse entirely around the domineering figure of ‘the author’, whose lifestyle and idiosyncrasies must be picked over in lurid detail for no reason” (55). The details are “lurid”; the focus on her physical appearance “demoralising.” Media interest in her life is thus tacitly compared to the intimate labor of the sex worker.
Yet rather than make these connections explicit, the novel needs to castigate sex work as uniquely degrading, to help to prop up the idea that a life without heterosexual monogamy is “sterile” – leading as it does to no children, no “production” of future generations, no “contribution” to the world. The idea of “making a contribution” is thereby mapped onto respectable coupledom and childbirth and a particular moral imperative to try to do something valuable with your time. And in fact Felix later describes working at a strip club as “the most depressing job he’d ever had” and counsels, “if you ever feel like things are going okay in the world” you should “have a look” at one (267).
These brief mention of sex work help pinpoint the novel’s grounding interest in separating out good decent work from what is unproductive, exploitative, “sterile” nothingness, while distinguishing also, as Normal People had done by faulting Marianne’s masochism, between sex manifesting women’s self-hatred (porn, “pain”) and acceptable playful “sexy” subordination within traditional standards. In one scene Eileen jokes with Simon about whether his desire for dominance over her means “you also want to tie me up and torture me.” He responds: “that would be a lot more normal, wouldn’t it? […] But I think the fantasy is just that you’re really helpless, and I’m like, telling you what a good girl you are” (152). So play amounts here, notably, to being a willingly subservient “good girl” to the man’s needs. Alas, no cunnilingus. How perverse!
These are also ultimately matters of genre. In writing literary romance fiction, Rooney is in her way competing with porn in offering narrative representations that can provide what Eva Illouz labels, simply, “ways of acting and doing” in conditions of radical uncertainty.  Illouz argues that porn’s performances of fantasy scenarios can, like bestselling novels, offer roadmaps for some people, helping them to resolve problems of ambivalence and confusion characteristic of contemporary romantic relationships. Rooney is doing boundary work on behalf of the literary romance, in distinguishing her work from porn’s scripts – again, moralizing heteronormative couple formation by separating out bad desires from good, and positioning those who worry about their progressive social contribution against those who ostensibly track toward a dismal nothingness. By countering sex work Rooney’s literary romantic narrative is cast as a respectable guide with solutions to real psychic struggles attending intimate relationships, helping readers toward thoughtful self-realization and healthy intimacy. In turn, identifying an abject other to healthy intimacy helps normalize the whole premise on which generic romance tropes are based: the premise that, unlike sex work, love in heterosexual coupledom is not a material relation involving property, labor, or exploitation. It is instead an escape from all that.
Here it has to be said, then, that despite the novel’s occasional talk of communism (“Everyone’s on it now, said Eileen. It’s amazing. When I first started going around talking about Marxism, people laughed at me. Now it’s everyone’s thing” ), it has little in the way of a materialist understanding of productive work and romantic coupledom – little to indicate that love without the couple form isn’t “nothing,” or that love within the couple form is a feeling entangled in the capitalist system that the characters at times lament. Instead the novel’s vision of romance deliberately disavows what is emphasized in communist thought on marriage and the family — that is, how experiences of gender and coupling reflect changes in household management that attend shifts in capitalist worldmaking, and how any story of romantic attachment involves what Maya Andrea Gonzalez and Cassandra Troyan call “the truer subject” which is neither him nor her but: value.
The novel’s main form, for instance, the heterosexual pairing with the woman subsumed under the command of the man, found strong expression in the male breadwinner and female homemaker dyad at the heart of the “family ideal of the workers’ movement […] their home a respectable centre of moral and sexual conformity,” to quote M.E. O’Brien.  At the end of Beautiful World Eileen and Simon are set up in what amounts to a nostalgic homage to this image. Since he makes more money than she does, and has what is perceived as a more worthwhile job, she will stay home to do childcare. Such an arrangement will be possible for them for a time because Simon earns a decent salary – and indeed, though this is precisely the sort of the thought that the novel avoids, readers can safely speculate that his money, and the fact that she thinks his job makes more of a “contribution,” is why it is possible for Eileen to be in love with him. His salary secures her retreat into the domestic home. Yet this is precisely what has to be disguised in order for her presence there to be “fetishized as a voluntary consensual labor of intimacy,” as Gonzalez and Troyan write, in their description of both the “real girlfriend” and the sex worker who is paid (more directly) to act like one.
The nostalgic image provided by Eileen and Simon references a model that was never especially widespread, that was dispersed unevenly along racial lines, and whose appeal and possibility have been decreasing for some time. It is now hard indeed for most couples to “keep an unwaged housewife out of the labour market,” O’Brien writes. It wasn’t feminist will alone that “destroyed the housewife-family that was central to the respectability of the workers’ movement,” but rather crisis-era capitalism.  Dominant now is the dual income household; and so, fittingly, common in much contemporary romance fiction is a female protagonist who has a job that she cares about. She isn’t looking for a man for material support and does not intend to “give up” her career, to use the language of the genre. When she does fall in love, we can be sure she really means it, because she doesn’t need his money, and doesn’t need to give value to her own life via subsumption under his respectable labor.
Alice and Felix exemplify this more companionate union. Alice is already rich and living in a posh house; Felix has a job that should be easy to quit, working unhappily at what sounds like an Amazon fulfilment center. (One pictures him boxing up orders for Rooney’s novels.) That Alice is always hosting suggests further that they will follow the common social pattern, with the woman continuing to do most of the housework while also earning an income. Felix seems set to become part of her household without taking on all the duties of the housewife.
In a key scene exploring the dynamics of their coupledom, Alice listens to Felix sing “The Lass of Aughrim” at a party – an Irish folk song of unknown origins and many variations. Rooney is cleverly engaging her fellow Irish writer James Joyce here: in “The Dead” (1914) Gabriel watches his wife listening to someone singing “The Lass of Aughrim” when they are about to leave a party. Gabriel is thinking about how beautiful his wife looks and how complemented her beauty is by her reflective mood. He is starting to think about being alone with her – the feeling that will later flourish into his desire to have sex with her but reluctance to force her when she seems so abstracted and aloof. His desire turns to anger at her lack of interest.
The irony here is that a common version of “The Lass of Aughrim” is about a stately lord’s having forced a woman of more lowly status into sex, impregnating her. In the song she is now standing outside his gates with her shivering baby asking to be let in. He remains distant. The story of the remote lord and the shivering woman who can’t penetrate his manor maps onto the story of Joyce’s Gretta and Gabriel: Gabriel is figured throughout as the arrogant elite who wants to counsel and tame fiery Gretta while remaining emotionally inaccessible. When she’s listening to “The Lass of Aughrim” she’s thinking not of Gabriel but of the anti-Gabriel, her young lover from when she lived in the west of Ireland. We can say further that the song is about marriage at the time that “The Dead” is set, with women’s status subordinated to and dependent upon men. The image of the woman lingering outside the gates figures the power relationship between a man who has everything and a woman who must be at his mercy if she wants to support her child.
Compare then the coupledom in Beautiful World: here, it’s Alice who watches. Felix’s singing further dignifies and humanizes him as a jovial working-class bloke who isn’t embarrassed to sing in public and knows some traditional folk songs. On the other hand, what dignifies Alice is her tears. Unlike Gabriel, whose tears do not fall until the story’s conclusion (when he reaches a moment of total ego dissolution and despairing shame), Alice cries because, it seems, she is so fond of Felix and the song has a lovely melody. She can forego her boundaries for a moment and feel romantic sentiment and attachment in the safe space of that kitchen. That it is “The Lass of Aughrim” that he sings is Rooney’s nod to the reversal of gender roles. In this version, she’s the wealthy lord (she’s staying in the town’s equivalent of a manor), but her benevolence extends to Felix. Rather than being ashamed by his relatively lowly status – the lord of the song can’t seriously consider this woman as a life mate, and Gabriel is ashamed of Gretta’s origins – Alice is attracted to Felix for his class position. That Felix is authentically working class is part of what makes him a real person in a way that Alice appreciates.
Their gender reversal and love across classes serves to romanticize their subsequent coming together into the isolated household. Love is another name for what Wally Seccombe dubs the “emotional intensification” that justifies retreat into the idealized home.  They will live behind closed doors, replicating what other couples are doing in their dyad-based units, each convinced of and committed to their unique love, with the outside world cast as what Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh describe as “a pre-existing harsh climate against which the family offers protection and warmth.” Barrett and McIntosh continue, however: as a “bastion against a bleak society,” it is in fact this family form that helps to make society bleak, because care is then expected, and indeed structured, to take place there and not elsewhere. 
While the characters in the novel complain about wasteful consumption and environmental devastation, the couple form is resource intensive and consumerist at its core. For every home a separate car, lawnmower, kitchen. “All the same, but all in isolation,” Barrett and McIntosh aver.  The romantic pair tends thus toward the antisocial, insular, protected enclave hidden from public view via the “endless proliferation of separate little households”; “relationships outside the marriage become thinner and less meaningful.”  It is, in O’Brien’s words, “a domestic privacy that protected against scrutiny and struggle”  – a retreat into one’s private den where discontent can be soothed and diverted.
The most dramatic justification for this antisocial retreat appears in Eileen’s nihilistic words to Alice about human extinction: “We can wait if you like, 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. But we’ll be waiting, in my opinion, a long time, and in fact we’ll die first […] 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?” (111)
Here we find the matter presented as a stark choice again, as in the pitting of exclusive heterosexual coupledom against a total void of meaning and purpose. You can think about the fantasized transformation of the world, which is never going to occur, or you can focus on worrying about something real: personal relationships. For Eileen it is better for the species to die out loving each other than just to die – again, as though love is a choice you make out of personal proclivity, as though your impulses aren’t determined elsewhere at all, as though people who are interested in revolutionary struggle are not also loving, as though commitment to revolutionary praxis isn’t a form of love, and so on, infinite etcetera.
Eileen continues: “Because when we should have been reorganizing the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead” (111-112). This is the novel’s answer to the charge made against Rooney’s earlier work, that she invests too much in individual experience and romantic love: that’s just what people do; that’s what human beings are, and this is ultimately fine, even if the world ends, because it’s going to end, we have no control over that. Capitalism is simply an evil that one lives through. We can see the world out alone, or in intimate solitude within our small family units. Again: penis > void.
To achieve this presentation of the matter, Beautiful World diverts from all the other possibilities just beyond the work’s field of vision, all the present and proliferating other ways of loving and connecting to people and valuing their existence – that is, people who want more and want to exist differently in the world. It obscures the ways in which it has been better, and will be better, to have more people involved in caring for each other, rather than leaving them engaged in daily tasks that are rarely shared among companions. The proliferation of connections and the sharing of resources points to a revolutionary horizon that the novel is determined to foreclose. Alternatives are not dreams whose impossibility one need only lament, but facts that already exist in the world, that have never not existed. In recent years, in particular, with the rise of the dual-earner household, and rising rates of informal work and joblessness, more people have been “choosing not to partner or marry,” have been evolving “atomized and fragmented family structures” and having children via means other than straight heterosexual sex.  People increasingly divorce or marry later, co-parent with friends, and have fewer kids and later in life. All of this has, O’Brien writes, “meant an improvement in all people’s ability to pursue fulfilling relationships beyond the narrow expectations of family and community,” hence a “huge growth in people pursuing homosexual relationships, gender transitions, and complex non-traditional families.” 
It’s hard not to conclude that it is as a deliberate counter to all this possibility that Beautiful World commits to a particular form of romantic coupledom imagined as fit solution to world-weary misery – a form of coupledom that is traditional, Christian, childbearing, centered on the man’s pleasure, singular and possessive and closed off from the rest of the world of possible relationships, intimacies, and pleasures. You could argue that the novel must be this way in order to satisfy the demands of the romance niche. But what compels Rooney to satisfy these demands, except that she is herself interested in exploring a particular kind of relationship zeitgeist, has seen the interest this generates in the form of the reception of her other two works, and wants to continue down that same very successful path?
By one count Beautiful World is now the most reviewed novel of all time. It was a plum gig to be asked to write about it for one of the prestige outlets; sales of the novel have been outpacing any other literary fiction title; bookstores went to town promoting it, with one pop-up shop in Shoreditch featuring a mural homage to the cover on an exterior wall, probably increasing ground rents in the neighborhood. Rooney even came back to Twitter to mark the occasion. Ka-ching!
The novel falls into two categories that are important to the general health of the publishing industry today (three if you count it as a New Adult title; four if you would call it “Up Lit,” ending as it does with the reassuring idea that there is a beautiful world to be found at home with your partner, your garden, your books): autofiction, a key mode in publishing’s literary niche; and romance, which as a niche often reports the highest profits. Rooney’s work isn’t straight romance, but as a literary-genre hybrid it is available to a middlebrow audience and for media engagement akin to what romance fiction affords: fandom expressed online in the form of ambient assertions of the power of love; and optioning for production by a film or tv studio, where audiences for mass romance will watch alongside the more literary readership. This is the sweet spot for literary fiction today – the absolute gold standard of how to make it as a writer with aspirations to success.
Still the writing is elevated enough to satisfy the literary niche and be reviewed in the most high-profile elite publications; literary people can feel comfortable admitting to having read it and taking it seriously. In being not just romance but autofiction, it is self-conscious about romance tropes and about literary success, tapping into reflexive modes common since the novel came into existence, but more recently fixated on conglomerate publishing and hyper-mediation. We can think of books like Martin Amis’s The Information (1995); Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes (2010); Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014). These books fold in a level of engagement with the fact of literary fame itself. Pierre Bourdieu would say perhaps that self-reflexivity is there to justify the otherwise shameful wealth of the writer, with guilt about money and opposition to the commercialization of art being a distinguishing feature of elite cultural activity – “well, they are rich AF, but at least they don’t like it! They wish it didn’t have to be this way!” Some readers have even seen autofiction’s self-reflexivity as the writer’s wry assertion of the ultimate irreducibility of art to capitalism, where “art is not the before or after of capitalism, but its determinate other.”
Beautiful World is self-aware in this way about the writer’s wealth. It also reflexively defends autofiction about wealth in the same breath (it is reflexive about its own reflexivity, sorry): at least autofiction isn’t rich people pretending to know about other things. Alice laments to Eileen that authors of contemporary fiction “know nothing about ordinary life. Most of them haven’t so much as glanced up against the real world in decades. […] As far as I’m concerned they’re speaking from a false position when they speak about that. Why don’t they write about the kind of lives they really lead, and the kind of things that really obsess them?” (74-5). Autofiction is a more honest reflection of the real life of the author. What other experiences do they have, aside from an all-consuming mediation via celebrity culture?
Write what you know, right? Alice continues along these lines in a later email, complaining “how wrong, how deeply philosophically wrong, the current system of literary production really is – how it takes writers away from normal life, shuts them behind doors, and tells them again and again how special they are and how important their opinions must be. And they come home from their weekend in Berlin, after four newspaper interviews, three photoshoots, two sold-out events, three long leisurely dinners where everyone complained about bad reviews, and they open up the old MacBook to write a beautifully observed little novel about ‘ordinary life’. I don’t say this lightly: it makes me want to be sick” (95). This would seem to be the extent of the options: be a rich star but write about ordinary life; be a rich star and write about hating being a rich star.
How, though, to square the novel’s complaints about the nature of literary fame with its production of the exact romance tropes, set to occasion the exact debates, that promise to amplify Rooney’s voice even further? Success is not the inevitable result of participation in the literary marketplace; it’s the nature of the work itself that makes it conducive to this kind of status. It’s always possible to write a different kind of book. The novel’s generic traditionalist romance plotting, with couples facing setbacks before finally ending up in something like contented union against the world’s miseries, is simply highly consumable: palatable but also edging on controversial in its conservatism.
How does the story of coupledom as refuge connect to Alice’s expression of her feelings about her literary celebrity, with its careful insistence on her sensitive denunciation of the nature of wealth and fame? In part, it’s that autofiction allows you to do the things that will make you famous – plotting the traditionalist romance – while distancing yourself from the desire to be acclaimed and from the pursuit of wealth. But also, like heterosexual coupledom, autofiction is presented as the only way to manage existence given the contemporary state of wearying declension in the whole life of the world.
Most writers, even those aspiring to a career in it, make little or no money and never achieve anything like fame. Rooney is celebrated because of the precise nature of her talent – of what she tends to foreground and obscure, and how this fits with dominant depictions and experiences. It isn’t that fame exists, sadly. It’s that she is doing things a particular way and this makes her available for esteem and celebration. In today’s literary environment, while many toil in relative obscurity and poverty, a few star figures are counted upon to inspire new talent and to finance everything via book sales, adaptation deals, and hot-take social media fan “prosumption” keeping people online and engaged. With so many compelling forces needing her work to exist, Rooney no doubt felt pressure to produce another book, and without much time passing between this and her last it is especially unsurprising that she draws so much upon her own experiences of being a writer and upon the reception of her previous work. In this light, complaining about success is a way of justifying continuing to produce work, and it is also quite simply the content of the work – the very words on the page. Write autofiction rather than exiting the system; write autofiction rather than doing something else with your life or with the form.
As in the novel itself, in which characters struggle to know what is worthwhile to do, and Alice’s fear of art’s powerlessness is analogous to a more general feeling of total social inefficacy, reflexive contemplation is a sign of distinction. By the novel’s own lights, autofiction is a mode that elevates Rooney above writers who pretend they know about anything other than fancy dinners and prize ceremonies. Autofiction is the only soundly moral option given the limited range of choices: the alternatives – silence, or another technique entirely – would never work, cannot be imagined. One couldn’t just not be successful.
We see here again the novel’s ultimate attachment to what Sophie Lewis has described as bourgeois society’s “healthful productive work” – work that requires disavowing something else that is threatening, unhealthy, worthless, unproductive, abject, on the outskirts of respectability. That deliberate occlusion of other possibilities, cast as beyond thought, as “nothing”: such disavowal is ultimately at the heart of the novel’s blend of literary and romance genres. It is key to the commitment to autofiction as literary mode, presented as a morally valuable way of relating to one’s work and status, with silence and failure the unnamable others; and it is crucial to its whole presentation of coupling, as it normalizes the generic romantic idea that the heteronormative love duo is the opposite of exploitative capitalist social relations, rather than their very upholding.
It’s just one depiction, to be sure. Yet Rooney’s popularity alone asks us to consider her work’s relationship to what Illouz calls, in her work on bestsellers, “collective preoccupations of a culture, its values, anxieties, and fantasies.”  There are answers to be found, I think, in the work’s justification of quietism in the face of the unbearable, and its presentation of romantic heteronormative coupledom as consolation and comfort rather than as privation, desperation, struggle, something to be overcome along with everything else.
 Annie McClanahan and Jon-David Settell, “Service Work, Sex Work and the ‘Prostitute Imaginary’,” South Atlantic Quarterly 120.3 (2021): 501.
 Eva Illouz, Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society (University of Chicago Press, 2014), 72.
 M.E. O’Brien, “To Abolish the Family: The Working-Class Family and Gender Liberation in Capitalist Development,” Endnotes 5 (2019): 377.
 Ibid., 407-8.
 Wally Seccombe, Weathering the Storm: Working-Class Families from the Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline (Verso 1995), 205.
 Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh, The Anti-social Family (Verso, 1982), 80.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 64, 54.
 O’Brien, “To Abolish the Family,” 393
 Ibid., 407.
 Ibid., 409.
 Illouz, Hard-Core Romance, 21.
Sarah Brouillette is a Professor in the Department of English at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.