In a recent review in Kill your Darlings, Laura Wynne suggests that a new wave of novels describe an existential crisis for millennials under late capitalism: a sense that ‘our options are complicity or despair: wreck or be wrecked.’ Wynne enlists the temp-working protagonist of Laura Halle Butler’s The New Me (2019), who imagines that her life would improve if she could just land a permanent position, to demonstrate the first option. The unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), who opts out by self-medicating a year away using an inheritance, represents the latter.
Charting a backlash against millennial earnestness and the illusory promise of ‘getting ahead,’ and a rise in cynicism concerning the viability of any sincere intervention, Wynne – by the review’s close – seems to have succumbed a little to the contemporary malaise she is diagnosing. Leaning toward the attitude of Moshfegh’s benumbed narrator, she concludes that detachment is ‘an essential survival strategy of our age.’ I believe there’s something more constructive we can take away from Moshfegh’s novel: the insight that the dichotomy of cynicism vs millennial earnestness was never a true range of options but a feat of branding, keeping us mired in self-loathing.
An Arts History major who claims she has no aspirations, Moshfegh’s self-medicating narrator spends much of the novel distinguishing herself from her hapless, striving friend Reva – who, with her self-help homilies, fake Louis Vuitton bags and ‘obvious’ cultural references, is evidently no match for this discerning intelligence. It is a dynamic that will be familiar to anyone who has read Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding (1962). The protagonist of that novel is a mediocrity-decrying twentysomething whose foil comes in the unassuming guise of her twin sister, who is about to commit the ultimate banality of getting married. Like Moshfegh’s heroine, would-be writer Cassandra is suffering a creative paralysis. While Cassandra links this paralysis to the death of her mother, Baker ultimately diagnoses a psychological avoidance: a brittle young heroine, fearing failure, clinging to fantasies of exceptionalism. As a portrayal it is not unsympathetic, and it’s fair to say some of the blame must be laid on Cassandra’s father, a snobbish professor who retired early because ‘it irked him to have to meet appointments.’
Oh, ‘the terrible isolation of integrity,’ to quote Harriet Daimler, the narrator of Iris Owens’ satirical 1973 novel After Claude – another literary heroine who spends her life in bed bemoaning mediocrity and dishing out insults to her long-suffering friend. Channelling the spirit of doubling that animates these earlier novels, Moshfegh places her heroine’s coming-of-age at the cusp of the Millennium. The signifiers of compromise – Reva’s submission to an endless roster of colonics, facials and online shopping – have been updated. The suspicion of a sleight of hand at work, in which a minor character is sacrificed on the altar of the heroine’s ‘authenticity’, remains. What makes Moshfegh’s novel millennial is that her heroine can no longer truly hold herself aloof from social and economic indignities. Though this professor’s daughter attempts to clear a moat around her with invective, asserting the integrity of a creative class, in her blackouts she indulges in the same online sprees and pedicure bookings that Reva does. The striving she’s repressed under a veneer of medicated cynicism returns.
Conversely, scratch the surface of the diligent veneer that Millie – the protagonist of The New Me – requires in order to hold on to her temp job and she is just as misanthropic, seething with hostility. Millie’s parents are still alive, so she is unable to burrow down into an inheritance. When a receptionist at her latest workplace gets her name wrong, she imagines pressing her nose into the woman’s keyboard and telling her: ‘my parents both went to grad school, I was raised correctly and in a good home, and it’s an insult to my mother, the professor, to imply that she named me Madison after the mermaid from fucking Splash, when I was named after my great-great-grandmother, a suffragette.’
The death rattle of an educated millennial in the throes of being squeezed out of the middle class, Millie’s narration veers between comedy and tragedy. The moment she wishes she could go back in time thirteen years and adjust her expectations, ‘bring them way down,’ will likely inspire many shivers of recognition. But the pathos of the novel’s ending, in which Millie, reduced to finding meaning in the correct placement of paperclips, lands a permanent position, is undermined by the vague sense of what meaningful path she has sacrificed. (She volunteered briefly at a woman’s shelter, wanting to plump up her CV, but quit without giving notice, finding it ‘frightening, difficult, boring’.) What is clear is the sense that when it comes to meaningless work, there is some other ‘Madison’ better suited to it.
As far as she has a handle on her narrator’s preposterousness, Moshfegh’s novel is the better satire, but both novels chart a specific loss of innocence: daughters of privilege floundering as the compromising web of capitalism – and with it, the gaudy demands of solidarity – come belatedly rolling in. If they describe a limited response to the alienations of late capitalism, this is because they only concern a narrow sample of who a millennial might be.
In Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, alienation is conceived as a zombie-like fever that began in the working conditions of factories in Shenzhen, China, and has now reached the prestigious gates of New York publishing. First it spread through the offices of Random House. Now employees of publishing house Spectra are beginning to exhibit symptoms: the affectless repetition of routine activities on a loop unto death. As her colleagues succumb, and others flee the metropolis, twentysomething Candace Chen – a Visual Studies major relegated to overseeing the manufacture of bibles – hunkers down in her Manhattan office, chronicling the emptying city on her blog, NY Ghost. Ma inserts a wry subtext: is nothing, not even art, sacred?
Through flashbacks we learn that Candace is not exactly an innocent. Back when a gemstone supplier for a popular pre-teen edition of the bible folded, and the factory’s unprotected workers were down with pneumoconiosis, she simply sourced the gemstones from another Chinese supplier. When her writer boyfriend urged her to leave her job, asking her how she could continue to be complicit, she dismissed his concerns as hipster earnestness. Though the orphaned, Chinese-born Candace does have a significant inheritance, her ‘work ethic’ keeps her from opting out. And yet, as the novel progresses, her justification for remaining complicit – ‘I was just doing my job’ – assumes, like the motions of the fevered, an empty, rote repetition.
Ma crafts a smart indictment of what happens when we surrender to the deadening logic of capitalism: the creeping attrition of independent thought, language, and responsibility. Setting her dystopic narrative in 2011, she paints the crisis in empathy as a crisis in solidarity: in the background, Occupy Wall Street protests stutter to a halt as activists succumb. It’s no accident, of course, that this apocalypse is viewed from the heart of publishing power, a domain that has long neglected the voices of a diverse working class for whom the experience of precarity is not new.
As the literary sphere becomes increasingly insecure, perhaps we will see a new type of bildungsroman. Struggling to support herself and her children with her freelance writing income, German novelist Heike Geissler took a temporary job in an Amazon warehouse. Her novel Seasonal Associate (originally published in German in 2014, translated into English by Katy Derbyshire in 2018), an account of this experience, involves a belated moral accounting. ‘The experience forces you to your knees and down a social stratum,’ Geissler writes. ‘You’ll start to see strata in society.’
Geissler’s use of second person narration sets up a conceit whereby she coaches her earlier, shift-bound self to resist the alienations of factory work. It also implicates the reader in the narrator’s encounter with her own relative privilege, a privilege that extends down to the very pool of books she routinely reads. Trudging through the snow in the early hours of the morning to a cancelled tram, arriving at work finally to be positioned beside a faulty door that lets in a bitter draft, she makes a scathing reassessment of a fellow author whose book dismisses ‘weather talk’ as trivial. Yet, notably, the narrator never degenerates into the ‘toughen up snowflake’ discourse so often peddled to millennials. Unpacking boxes of pop psychology books that preach attitude adjustment, she pushes back with her own advice: ‘stay uncalm’; ‘prove to your employer that you’re alive.’ Her musings on her own sensitivity, the fact that the conditions are ‘hard to deal with for a delicate soul,’ lead her to assert that ‘no-one is suited for unhappiness, yet this fact doesn’t get enough recognition, however unbelievable that seems.’
It is a fact that we’d be foolish to expect from the mouths of Butler and Moshfegh’s narcissistic anti-heroines. Busy despising who they fear they are rather than imagining who else they might be, these myopic, honorary-writer types are lacking the friendship of a Lila Cerullo. In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Lila’s experiences of exploitation and harassment on the meat factory floor, and her involvement in industrial action, are always within the purview of Elena Greco’s writing desk, troubling her complacency. Though Geissler’s narrator is no longer so secure at her desk, she knows she can and will return to it, and that with that ever-slimmer wedge of privilege comes a responsibility: pushing herself to rise above her ‘childlike hatred’ for her co-workers and instead ‘critique the structure’ that encourages it.
‘We’re not leaving this book until you’ve taken action,’ Geissler’s narrator asserts, taking both herself and the reader hostage. The forms of actions she takes range from small, deliberate inefficiencies on the factory floor and introducing herself to a co-worker in defiance of Amazon’s ‘no talking’ code, to attending a strike of Amazon workers and, ultimately, writing her novel. Although, to the extent that Seasonal Associate is a novel, it is one in extremis: the relentless assembly line of banal moments threaten to flatten the narrative and the narrator is reduced to – as she phrases it – her ‘most generic traits’ and to modelling mimetic how-to resistance.
What is of note is how much of this resistance, at the very moment the novelist’s capacities for innovation are under threat, plays out at the level of language: whether the narrator is demanding to be addressed by the more respectful German Sie, rather than the infantilising du enforced by Amazon policy; resisting degenerating into a hostile ‘employee language’ that corrodes solidarity; or pushing back against euphemisms like fulfilment centre and seasonal associate. Such travesties of meaning are attempts to co-opt emotion to corporate purposes and should inspire cynicism. They should also recall us to the urgency of defending the integrity of a meaningful language; of asserting human qualities in the face of a dehumanising structure that would make us despair of sincere speech or action. If the late capitalist narratives we tell are to rise above the mere repetition of old tropes, detachment is not an option.
Image: Daniel Hoherd