Last year on Australia’s The Bachelor, the Bachelor, known primarily as ‘the Honey Badger’—one of those private-schoolboy-faux-bogan types, if that explains anything at all about the naming situation—did not choose a bachelorette. This television moment was like peeking behind a curtain, even while knowing that all I would ever see was another curtain: surely, the Honey Badger’s uncertainty and commitment-phobia was not real, and he was not allowed such consequential agency at this late stage of the game? Surely the network had planned and staged this awkward impasse to give us a little shock after years of insipid Cinderella finales?
The image my mind keeps returning to is the reunion of the two rejected bachelorettes, the juicy glitch in reality television’s smooth veneer as they figure out what’s happened. There’s a practical brunette and a vampish blonde and they’re both laughing and crying. A kind of adrenaline rush has hit them. There’s a sense of horrifying possibility that these women might do absolutely anything. The camera movements are shaky; everything in this moment has an urgency that comes from these visual nods to the impromptu. This is what we’re not supposed to see, right? Is this footage proof that what happened was unplanned, or is it part of the planning?
It’s only natural that I want to see the mechanism of the planning. In 2019, our whole selves are made up of small acts of planning. We’re living in an age where you can’t really participate in society unless you cultivate a shadow of yourself on the internet – and our main goal in these harsh online spaces is to project, or at least approximate, total authenticity. If you think about it, that’s an oxymoron: you can’t control your authentic self, you can only be it, and being something in real life where nobody is looking at you isn’t going to get you any likes or new followers. So we plan. How many times have my friends private messaged me images—a pear, a book, pale linen, a limb askew—“should I story this?”
Annaleese Jochems’ debut novel Baby enters the scene, then, at an interesting moment. Jochems gives us Cynthia, a blonde “skinny-fat” millennial ingénue, as our point of entry. Unlikeable protagonists are something of a trend among millennial literary novels—think Frances in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, Alice in Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, Paul in Tao Lin’s Taipei, Megan in Halle Butler’s Jillian, or the nameless narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation—and Cynthia doesn’t disappoint. As we meet her, she embodies everything a baby boomer has ever whinged about millennials in a newspaper or on talkback radio: she’s twenty-one, lazy, entitled, unmotivated and self-absorbed. She thinks, perhaps knows, that she’s beautiful and that being beautiful is enough, although for what remains uncertain for the time being. She’s glued to her phone and thus detached from whatever reality exists outside of its glass pane. Another apathetic pouting white girl who assumes that she’ll get whatever she wants by default and so follows her quarry around, waiting for wish fulfilment. (Yes, like me at twenty-one.) You could suggest that Jochems is doing some broad metaphorical work here, that Cynthia’s apathy is all of our apathy, that the consequences Cynthia must face are all of our consequences. But really, isn’t it possible that Jochems is just having a little fun?
Cynthia’s quarry—the thing she wants most of all, the thing she’s risked everything for—is her gorgeous gym trainer, Anahera. Anahera is the book’s opening line, but not its beating heart. Its beating heart is Cynthia. Impulsive, lying-on-her-feet Cynthia! You feel a kind of affection for her, even as Jochems uses textural descriptions to repulse you from her: custard, snot, porridge. Cynthia is emotionally in tune with Anahera: she can “understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body”. When Anahera leaves her husband, Cynthia—unsatisfied by her own love affairs with insipid men, men whose idea of flirting is texting photographs of dogs, “men who don’t like educational television”—steals sixteen thousand dollars from her father’s bank account and convinces Anahera to run away with her. With Cynthia’s father’s money, they drive to the Bay of Islands and buy a boat called Baby.
During the long, long period of Cynthia’s languid boredom on board Baby in the book’s first act—repetitive motions, canned foods on the stove, soaping her swim-suited body in the salty ocean, folding out Baby’s Murphy bed and folding it away again—the possibility of desire overshadows every word. Even the ones like “is” and “and” are stretched as taut as rubber bands about to be flicked. There’s an undercurrent of shame during this period, too: while Cynthia’s bored, Anahera is as nervous as a caged animal. But Cynthia’s not really observant like that. She’s avoiding a reality check, one that’s so long it spills over the character limit of a single text message into several text messages: one that would force her to ask herself a question no millennial wants to ask: what am I doing here? So instead, the canned food, her phone on landscape mode, streaming The Bachelor Pad and The Newlywed Game on an unlimited data plan. Escapism, raw and unfiltered. Cynthia’s eyebrows grow hairy, shapeless and wild. Perfect beauty is something you can’t maintain on the run, even though the movies would have you believe otherwise.
Later, Cynthia’s pursuit of Anahera becomes, circumstantially, more calculated. She can no longer rest on the laurels of her youth and beauty to simply hold out her hand and receive what she would like to have; she must fight for it. Cynthia—millennialism distilled to its purest form—doesn’t strike you as a fighter. Not in the Charlie’s Angels sense, anyway. But she’s confident that she can control what people think of her, and if you think about it, as you craft the specific timbre of each individual Tweet, as you ensure that all your Instagram stories have an aesthetic flow that is both uniform and unique, as you remove all the uppercase “I”s from your text messages: aren’t you, too? In his 2009 essay ‘Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility’, art theorist Boris Groys writes that:
The virtual space of the Internet is primarily an arena in which my website on Facebook is permanently designed and redesigned to be presented on YouTube—and vice versa. But likewise in the real—or let’s say, analog—world, one is expected to be responsible for the image that he or she presents to the gaze of others.
Cynthia, who in her life before Baby and Anahera “did things on Facebook” during most of her downtime, is no stranger to Groys’ endless work of designing and redesigning her self. The Cynthia that appears on Facebook is redesigned to be presented anew on Instagram, and presumably again on dating apps and in private messages, and on and on. In the real—or, as Groys calls it, “analog”—world, Cynthia continues this work of designing and redesigning, showing herself to Anahera as someone who Anahera might like, or maybe as someone who could be like Anahera. Either way, it’s just projection.
As readers, the Cynthia that we know—the authentic Cynthia, maybe—goes a little deeper. We know about her secret guilts and shames, her innermost fantasies and most desperate boredoms: and yet we know the fake Cynthia, too. The peppy Cynthia who knows what she’s doing and is up for the challenge. The Cynthia who will see each lie through to its logical conclusion, however crushing. This is the way it has to be: anyone who’s ever lied knows that revealing yourself at the climax is like spending hours baking a beautiful cake and then icing it with your own shit.
For months or even for her whole life, Cynthia’s felt a furious desperation to go somewhere, to feel things, and be a real person. Well, Anahera is the over-heated centre of the world, the point of rupturing where it becomes too big and too strong to hold itself, and Cynthia feels close to her now. At last, she’s content.
You can’t cultivate an authentic self, only be it – and Cynthia’s authentic self lays around a boat all day streaming reality television, while Anahera’s body grows stronger and perhaps more prepared for what lies ahead. A conclusion Jochems invites us to draw is that Cynthia’s idea of a ‘real person’ is tainted by having allowed her digital and analog worlds, and selves, to blend into one shadowy space, one shadowy self. A shadow is unknowable, intangible, impenetrable. But Cynthia has learned from The Bachelor, and other, similar shows, that “You have to ask for love, and do anything for it”. She has done something crazy, something reality-television-worthy: she is living on a boat with a divorced woman whom she loves. But something’s missing. You’re wondering, right: is it the audience? Or is it something as simple, as corny, as brilliant and wrenching as love?
A lot of people find The Bachelor compelling viewing, but to be honest I’ve only ever enjoyed the first and last episodes. Both are little parades of humiliation, monuments to a kind of heterosexual romance that, in my experience of the world at least, doesn’t exist beyond anybody’s surface. But perhaps that’s the problem – or maybe less of a problem, and more of a point. Our surfaces reflect all that careful work we’ve done; the designing and redesigning, the planning. If you expect the love in your life to look like the love in The Bachelor, you’ll plan your life around it. And that is exactly what Cynthia does, until she can’t anymore, and she has to turn to Plan B.
She watches The Bachelor for three hours. It’s all about how to fight your enemies by lying, kissing, fucking and dressing really well. All she needs to do is remember everything she knew in her old life. … It doesn’t matter about the truth of anyone’s love. You either have the gumption and talent to win a place for what you’ll call your love, or you don’t and it means nothing – if you can’t swim, the water won’t hold you.
For Cynthia—and maybe for Jochems, and maybe in a broader way for us, for millennials—this rings true. Love is like The Bachelor. It’s a peek behind a curtain to another curtain. You’re planning and planning and sometimes love is not the goal but just part of the detail. Sometimes you spurn two bachelorettes at once in order to advance your perfect image as Australia’s cheekiest rugby-player-slash-underwear-model. Love, and the dance around it, becomes an act of self-projection, a tile in the pathway to your own understanding of a winner: a brilliantly, totally authentic you.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer and the author of chapbook Something To Be Tiptoed Around (2018). She’s a PhD candidate and teacher of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne and is working on her first novel.