Global warming. Right-wing politics. Refugee crisis. These are the global issues of today – the ones we hear about on a daily basis.
They are cause for concern even if we’re not an immediate victim at this very moment — our motivation to take action. Am I doing something to help? Is it enough? Is it anything at all? Such are the questions any civic-minded person constantly poses to themselves. But then, of course, these convictions get sidetracked by our personal lives.
In her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney manages to convey the contradictions and frustrations of it all through the conversations of best friends, Alice and Eileen, two women in their late 20s who discuss the limitations of capitalism, their date of last night, and everything in between.
“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,” says Alice at one point.
The characters’ discussions allude to several United Nations Development Goals. Whether it’s Responsible Consumption and Production, when Alice points out the exploitation of labour behind many consumer products, or Climate Action, when again she remarks that most of them come in single-use plastic and rely on the burning of fossil fuels. The irony is that she buys them anyway – and many times, so do we.
This inner conflict, where we trade convenience for conscience, is indeed a daily challenge for all of us.
Sally Rooney has certainly struck a chord with her audience. Her willingness to entwine current world issues with age old questions has turned her into one of the best-selling authors today. In addition, Rooney often touches upon well-known but little-talked about subjects. For example, a character in her first novel, Conversations with Friends, is a woman who happens to suffer from endometriosis, a shockingly under-researched condition that affects 1 in 10 women which echoes the lack of Gender Equality in the medical field.
Meditating on our contribution to the world is something the author seems to struggle with as much as anyone else, even with regards to the act of writing and art in general.
“When you inhabit a time of enormous historic crises, and you’re concerned about it,” Rooney says in an interview, “how do you justify to yourself that the thing to which you’ve chosen to dedicate your life is making up fake people who have fake love affairs with each other?”
Why is art important? In the face of so much tragedy, why does it matter? This novel seems to suggest one viable answer – that art helps us process. Art helps make sense of life, the good and the bad, the global and the personal, and at its best, brings attention to urgent matters. It undoubtedly sounds like a worthwhile pursuit.
“I want to live in a culture where people are making art, even as everything else falls apart,” Rooney observes, “It gives my life meaning.” As long as there are obstacles to overcome, there will always be a place for art.
Buy Beautiful World, Where Are You at your favourite independent bookstore, or get it from your local library.