To be truly awake under late capitalism is to be in existential crisis. Jia Tolentino, this moment’s chief-pulse-taker (described almost ad nauseam as this generation’s Joan Didion), writes: ‘the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional’. We must either live in perpetual crushing crisis, or become complicit in the mess. Our options are complicity or despair: wreck or be wrecked.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Jonathan Cape, 2018), the unnamed narrator chooses to be wrecked – to sleep for a year in a pharmaceutically-induced coma – rather than engage in the futility of day-to-day existence.
By contrast, Millie, protagonist of Halle Butler’s The New Me (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019), persists with complicity, in a near somnambulant shuffle from grotty apartment to temp job and back again. Her faint optimism that one day her numbing grind will be transformed into an exhilarating, or at least stable, existence keeps her focused on the ‘new me’ – the possibility of a better self waiting just around the corner. Of course, Millie is at least somewhat aware that this new self will never actualise, that it will be forever just out of reach. Existential crises in literature are nothing new, but a new wave of novels by millennial women – including Moshfegh and Butler, who I focus on here – foreground capitalism as the cause of our lost footing.
Both Moshfegh’s and Butler’s novels are interested in an experience of depression that is not chemical, biological, or pathological, but primarily existential. To be alive is to be despondent, to be awake is to be melancholy. Awareness of the conditions that enable your survival is crushing, to be blind to them – though it is blindness that Moshfegh’s narrator seeks – all but impossible.
Both Moshfegh’s and Butler’s novels are interested in an experience of depression that is not chemical, biological, or pathological, but primarily existential.
Millie’s every day passes in a temp job filled with futile tasks and vindictive colleagues, remunerated with a pittance. Her life is equal parts pointless and terrifying, her precarious employment leaving her simultaneously numb and on edge: ‘Back at my desk I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to come to this room and sit at this desk and slowly collect money.’ Not returning tomorrow means not surviving, but returning tomorrow means only surviving.
Work, for so many, is neither productive nor lucrative; alienation from the means of production, from our own labour and our own sense of productiveness and meaning, is crippling. It’s a wonder there is any optimism in Millie at all – that she imagines gaining secure and full-time work, getting fit, cleaning her apartment, looking put-together (a ‘new me’) is a feat of extraordinary delusion and willpower. The surprising thing in her situation is not her malaise (surely the only rational response to such circumstances) but rather the fact that the innate human drive to survive somehow endures, compelling her every day out of her bed and into the office to shred documents and clip papers into packets before returning home to eat junk food, retire to bed and do it all again.
Moshfegh’s narrator is similarly disenchanted with life under capitalism, though her class privilege and situation on the lucky side of intergenerational inequality allows her to take a different course of action. Similarly depressive and disconnected, the narrator chooses to sleep for an entire year, to completely disengage from society, from culture (except Whoopi Goldberg movies), politics and the economy and the city around her – to become a blank slate. To do this, she makes use of a script-happy therapist more than willing to assist her with all manner of prescription psychopharmaceuticals, which are, after all, today’s coping mechanism of choice. That our narrator here chooses to use these drugs to sleep for a year is but an exaggeration of what the rest of us – who must continue on with jobs and grocery shopping and other responsibilities – do in a more restrained manner: pop pills to get by, to drag ourselves from one day to the next, to forget that we hate who we are and have no sense of meaning attached to what we do.
It’s a wonder there is any optimism in Millie at all – that she imagines a ‘new me’ is a feat of extraordinary delusion and willpower.
Moshfegh’s narrator’s blithe acceptance of a level of privilege allows her to write off an entire year of her life, is demonstrative of a world in which wealth and privilege exist to be squandered by those who have it. Conversely for Millie, that wealth and privilege will be forever out of reach is a given. Millie’s optimism is not that she will pull herself up by her bootstraps to live out the American Dream, but that perhaps one day she will have the security of not living day-to-day, and maybe even enjoy a tiny pay rise. This is a life in which getting paid $18 an hour, rather than $12, could drastically alter one’s life trajectory. Almost laughable, except that the $6 pay rise will sit forever just out of Millie’s grasp.
Any millennial worth their salt – and for that matter anyone online today – will know that earnestness is, in our present moment, a virtue to be scorned. Cynicism and scepticism are the values of the day. And why not be cynical? To be earnest in late capitalism is, surely, to not be paying attention. At every turn, we are encouraged to see ourselves as independent enterprises, competing with those around us for a piece of an ever-shrinking pie. Precarious work, bullshit jobs, a seemingly permanent housing crisis, a planet in a death spiral, a team of self-serving buffoons leading the world’s most powerful nations. What on earth is there to be earnest about?
In these characters, earnestness is a poison and a weakness. Millie’s pathetic attempts at self-reinvention are to be mocked by the reader because they are made in earnest. Moshfegh’s narrator is scornful of effort, disdainful of others’ attempts to look good, be good, or even to feel anything at all. The only truly earnest character in either novel is Reva, our slothful narrator’s best friend. Reva is sweet, self-conscious, striving. Her concern for Moshfegh’s narrator, as well as her eagerness to please, are dismissed by the narrator as ridiculous and absurd because she is genuine, heartfelt, lacking in the cynicism required to truly thrive in this moment.
Even the friendships of late capitalism feel perfunctory, transactional. Reva clings to Moshfegh’s glamorous narrator for support despite seemingly having no idea who the narrator really is or what she might want from life. In turn, she is met with cruelty and distance. Similarly, Millie and her friend Sarah share no real affection, but merely rely upon one another for things: Sarah for a conversational partner that she can dominate, and Millie for a personality about whom she can feel superior. In a world in which we’re all islands, competing for Instagram followers and start-up funding and another guest on Airbnb, friends become pitted as merely competitors, perhaps at times conveniences, but rarely things worth investing our time or energy in.
Moshfegh and Butler’s novels don’t provide the answers, but they do open up space for consideration of what a millennial response to these crises might look like.
The most tragic element of The New Me isn’t even the precarity and futility itself, but Millie’s optimism that she will, indeed, one day find that elusive ‘new me’. That if she goes to yoga and cooks real food and remembers to stretch and do ‘self-care’ and clean her apartment that she will wake up transformed, a new, happy version of herself will emerge from the sad and filthy cocoon of her former life. Optimism appears as the most absurd endeavour in the entire exercise.
If I were to nominate the more rational protagonist of these two novels, it would not be Millie. Millie’s trudging, her fitful striving, her optimism, her clinging to survival, look to me more misguided or naive than the efforts of Moshfegh’s narrator. To sleep for a year – to escape the pulsing, racing city and the world of careers and of social media and of politics – has an undeniable appeal. But perhaps this approach is similarly optimistic (and therefore similarly deluded): if I were to sleep for a year, wouldn’t I be expecting some improvement of conditions at the other end? It’s not entirely clear what our narrator expects will happen at the end of her year, but what becomes clear is that reality will be waiting for her with cruel anticipation, and that her delightful ignorance will dissolve just a moment or two after she attempts to re-open her eyes.
These novels raise important questions for millennials about how to proceed in our floundering world. Should we cling to optimism, hopeful that a new way and a new world might be around the corner? Or put our heads in the sand, in the knowledge that we are, for the time being at least, unlikely to be able effect a change in the status quo? Or is there a third path: one that might be empowering, hopeful and transformative? These novels don’t provide the answers, but they do open up space for consideration of what a millennial response to these crises might look like.
Millie describes her alienation from her self and her emotions: ‘I am either calm or hollow, hard to say’. That we become alienated from our friends, our work, our sense of meaning, our sense of self and our feelings is a symptom of this moment. Detachment is to some degree inevitable: it is an essential survival strategy of our age.