I don’t know about anyone else, but I am sick of other generations telling me what it’s like to be a millennial. I already know I don’t go to Chili’s. I already know avocado toast is delicious. I already know I’m hopelessly mired in a horrible financial outlook not of my own making. So I’m always interested in hearing about millennials from millennials, which is why I was so drawn to Halle Butler’s The New Me.
The New Me follows 30-year-old Millie, a perennial temp who hates her job and hates her life and has only one friend/complaining buddy. Her latest gig has her answering phones for a fashion designer, which means she mostly sits at her desk and does nothing while her supervisor thinks of ways to get her fired. Intercut in Millie’s first-person narrative is a third-person glimpse into her supervisor’s life, to the lives of some of her coworkers, and to her downstairs neighbor.
And that’s…that’s actually mostly it. That’s the setup, and that’s the story insofar as I can tell it without giving spoilers, which I really do try to avoid here (although, fair warning, I do fail a bit below). It’s a short book, just 191 pages, so I guess that’s fair for the story to be pretty easily explained, but…yeah, that’s the book.
The bulk of the story, then, is not plot, but Millie’s often-cringey observations about the people around her. Make no mistake: for the first part of the book, I identified so closely with many aspects of Millie that I alternately felt seen and personally called out. I’ve had soul-sucking, dead-end jobs where most of my day is spent sitting at a desk waiting for a phone to ring under the watchful eye of someone who was secretly scheming to get me fired, and then went home to relative squalor and complained because that is the only thing it feels like you can do in that situation. It sucks. Millie’s depression and lack of drive made sense and her takes on the vapid people around her felt real.
As the story progresses, Millie gets word that she might be considered for full-time work, and she has to decide if she should leap at the chance for steady employment or look for something more meaningful, and the fact that it’s not really a decision because she has no other options or resources (except for how her parents are supporting her) is a depressing, real moment (except for parents supporting a person, which I know some people have but it always sounds made up to me). Her increased eagerness and investment in her own life at the mere prospect of having something permanent to go to is likewise kind of tender.
It would just mean more, and be more crushing when she ultimately gets fired if we didn’t see her supervisor’s every move in dragging her over to the guillotine and pulling the lever.
See? I said I’d fail at the no-spoilers thing. More spoilers to follow.
From a literary perspective, I’m not sure why Butler chose to show us the reality of the behind-the-scenes machinations while also trying to make us believe the fiction of Millie’s chances at a Real Job, especially because that build-up makes up half of the back-cover blurb (which I know Butler had no control over, but someone must have thought it was a good idea). The firing, too, comes when there’s still a bit of book left, so I think there must have been some miscommunication between the content of the book and whoever was in charge of the blurb.
At the same time, I’m not sure what else could have been written about the story. Millie mopes around and stays with her parents for a bit before returning to the city and accepting her fate as a forever-low-level worker, becoming a cautionary tale for others who follow. I see merit in sending Millie in that direction, and it does feel more honest—if depressing—to doom her to a lifetime of marginal employment than it would have to give her even the faintest spark of passion. But in so doing, and in the way it was orchestrated, it feels like Butler is adding to the other-generation voices saying that millennials are doomed.
The New Me is billed as satire, so maybe the hopeless tenor of the book is intentional. It does feel that way, initially, but it also wore thin fairly quickly. Millie is a singularly unpleasant person to be around, as is evidenced by the fact she has no friends–a very intentional move on Butler’s part—but that also means that I didn’t want to hang around her POV, either. Everyone is awful to Millie; everyone is wanting. Picking apart the flaws of others is her one joy in life and it makes her lonely, which I did like as commentary of the weird social existence we collectively lead, but being so close to her for so long was difficult. It reminded me of Time’s Arrow (the novel, not the excellent episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation), which I also didn’t like, so maybe that says something about me more than this book.
I understand satire. I like satire. I know that satire is sometimes difficult to read. But sometimes, I think, people can say something off-putting and if/when it doesn’t get the reaction they were looking for, they sometimes call it satire. I’ll give Butler enough benefit of the doubt to believe that this wasn’t the case and that she honestly was trying to represent a very real and bleak corner of the millennial experience. But I also don’t feel like this was successful satire.
You know what was a better commentary on the millennial experience and dead-end jobs and the hopelessness of existence? Severance, by Ling Ma, which follows a millennial woman, Candace, to a dead-end job at a publishing house that she doesn’t like but can’t quit because she needs the money and Real Jobs are hard to come by. Candace is so dependent on keeping her job that she agrees to stay on and man the office while everyone else quarantines from a deadly virus…that originated in China…
Severance might be a little too real in the age of the ‘rona, but it’s still a fantastic read and a dismal look on being an aimless and desperate millennial. The New Me? Not so much.