beautiful world

January 17, 2021  

Dear Ethan,

I just finished reading Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. Because Conversations with Friends & Normal People read so similarly, I’m considering this her sophomore novel. I’m reading this as Jake concludes the last pages of The Bell Jar & The Awakening for the first time. I can hear our little blue-gray house soaking up all this literature late at night—not in a creepy way, like how our last apartment was haunted, but in the way that you can feel the walls listening to someone thinking really hard about something. 

The first Rooney book I read was Normal People in Dublin three summers ago. I was hanging out a lot by myself (big surprise), and missing you so much—I bring myself to tears just thinking about it—that I finally pulled myself together and half-heartedly Google mapped a route to Muji which was a 10-minute train ride or a one hour walk, so I put on my sneakers. 

On my walk, I thought about how the first time I saw New York, I saw it from a hotel window as I chainwatched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I was pretending I wanted to be a lawyer that belonged at NYU, and the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. I was in a room on a college visit with three other people, and they were hung-over out of their minds, and I flew down the stairs as I saw the fire trucks wailing through the curtains. I suppose I should feel awful, but those girls didn’t speak to me the rest of the trip because it hadn’t occurred to me to wake them up. I think this is a great example of my own self-preservation, and I shouldn’t laugh at the memory, but I still do. This is why walks are wonderful.  

Anyway, once I crossed the river to the busier parts of Dublin, the streets turned to cobblestone and started winding and playing a number on me. I had just about given up on Muji when I saw a Hodges Figgis bookstore and I found Normal People, not even knowing that the author was Irish, hence the shrine of books drawing my attention at the entrance, so I bought it. It was raining outside, and the second I exited the store I realized I had only mapped one way and didn’t have an international phone plan. Considering the possibilities, I resigned myself and found a coffee shop and started reading. 

What I like best about Rooney is that you feel you’re in an intimate space with these people you’ve known your whole life, and they’re just chatting, and sometimes you reach these deep interior spaces, almost a little glimpse or a chance to learn something big about yourself. This is why I think fiction is more honest. For instance, there’s a character in Beautiful World who has yellow curtains with green squares and I could see them exactly, blowing in the wind against a sunset, yellowed in the way Europe glows with an unearthly light. Or you’re in that character’s mother’s head, and she’s reminiscing about a pony she had as a child. It’s a revolutionary away to write dialogue—maybe a little Joycean—and well, I fall into the dream quite quickly. 

I paused on certain pages and thought of my friend Andrea, who was my soulmate in my early twenties. We lived with five roommates in an apartment in Crystal City, Virginia. It was bizarre how much we knew each other, after only a few short weeks. Do you want a quesadilla, she’d say telepathically from her room, which was really just a closet with French doors. Yes, and Madmen, I’d reply from my room, where I was sprawled out on the bed reading Franzen’s How to be Alone while my roommate Sarah was snoring. Twenty minutes later we’d emerge from our caves, quesadillas on a plate and a bag of Rips candy between us. She’d even rip them for me, which goes to show you how you should value your friends while they’re with you. You never know the last time you’re going to do something. The last Rip, the last time you hold your child like a baby. Time is fleeting. Andrea told me once she was embarrassed by her handwriting, that lettering used to be a point of pride, and I’ll smile in the present day and straighten up my r’s. I miss her. 

There’s a passage in the Rooney book on friendship that hit me right in the heart. It’s rare these days. Contemporary fiction is so clever and sterile and modern. Dare I say unsentimental. There’s a character talking to her not-boyfriend, and they’re very solemnly discussing their destiny, together or apart. I will never renounce our friendship, she says, perhaps out loud (they Joycean dialogue, you see). He responds, perhaps telepathically. Yet you know one day they will. You know Rooney has suffered, and perhaps she had the courage to write on the page what she could never utter aloud. Yet, it still mattered how the character, Eileen, chose to be bold in that moment, so charged with meaning. 

I was reminded of several deep friendships I’ve lost or dwindled into nothingness, either aggressively or fated, and this passage shocked my brain into mourning what I’ve avoided. I’m a big fan of grand gestures, and it occurs to me that perhaps I’ve never performed one. 

I did emerge from that café in Dublin eventually, in case you’re worried. It was about three hours later and the sun was setting and I thought, well, now I’ve done it. But I found myself a donut and some McDonald’s wifi, and made my way back to my little hotel room, praying I wasn’t needed elsewhere when I made myself disappear. 

I love this concept of elsewhere that comes from reading. I actively seek these elsewheres. But is my favorite, most consistent thing about myself (love of reading) indicative of my inability to live in the present moment? Rooney reminds us that reading is an active art form. We renounce or are renounced. We are the characters in our own lives. 

Right now, I’ve got scraps of paper taped to my wall that make my heart thud. They are haphazardly written notes about the book I wrote and will rewrite. The paper is from A4 scraps taken from inside the drawers of a dresser Jake rescued from a rodeo clown who wrote his skit work in blue ballpoint pen. There’s always a story in a story. It is daunting to put pen to paper and say to the world, “I care.” A teacher once told me that you write the same damn story over and over again.  I know what mine is. Perhaps I’ve always known it. What I am doing now is desperately seeking an ending that gives poetic justice to the future I think you deserve. 


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