Work is hell. I’m looking for a new job, and each listing feels more deranged and depressing than the last: responsibilities to answer your phone out of work hours, senior positions that pay unliveable wages, five years of experience to essentially fill out an excel spreadsheet, video applications!, adverts in all caps that read like: ARE YOU A GUN WHEN IT COMES TO SOCIAL MEDIA?
In this climate, reading Halle Butler’s The New Me was a strange, cathartic joy. I read the book in one sitting, and the experience was akin to sculling a whole glass of vinegar: searingly sour and burning, but ultimately good for me. As I read every excruciating office interaction and vile jab, I felt like was expelling the worst, sickest parts of myself.
The New Me starts with Millie, who is thirty, and ten days into a temp job answering the rare phone call at a design showroom. Her boyfriend has left her. She hates her friends, her life and most of all her body, which she describes as “puke-filled”, smelling like “onion pizza” and “oil-slicked”. Her nights are spent numbing herself with episode after episode of Forensic Files.
She is defined by her unrepentant rage for almost everything. Her colleague that calls her Maddie by mistake is a “thankless cunt”. She rails on a stranger’s “fuck-you disappointment” outfit. When one of the company’s top designers yells at her over the phone, she fantasises about him caught up in a violent home invasion, imagining “his gasping, girlish shouts”.
But in real life, she chirps “sorry!”, “Thank you!”. When her superior, Karen, unhappy with her stapling technique, shows her methodically and slowly the wrong and right way to do it: “‘I totally get it’ I say, speaking in low tones, soothing and reassuring, nodding to keep the indignant scream from leaving my lips.”
Most people can find themselves in the demoralising work situations Butler (who like Millie, spent many years temping) maps out in her novel, but there is something especially resonant about the way she writes about the saccharine niceties and congeniality that can play out between women in the workforce. The kind of performance we enact while debasing ourselves, our stomachs churning with rage as we squeak, no, it’s fine, really!
Or even how savage workplace cruelty is disguised by professional pleasantries: “I have just seen something that puts me further ill at ease about including her on our team,” Karen writes in a complaint email to Millie’s temp agency.
The New Me is about the gig-economy hellscape and the precariousness of middling work. But it’s also overwhelmingly about entitlement. Millie is not struggling to get by. Her parents subsidise her rent and sometimes wire her money for groceries. Most of Millie’s anger seems to stem from the fact that she believes her upper-middle-class upbringing and university education should shield her from the kind of work she’s undertaking. She feels slighted. The book reeks with resentment.
But even as Millie isolates herself, she isn’t alone in her misery. Butler includes slim chapters that detail the perspectives of other minor characters in Millie’s orbit. They might not be as sloppy or sad, but the pains of work, profound alienation and overall emptiness are contaminating their lives too. One woman constructs an entire joke-filled monologue about her new puppy before drinks with friends, and internally loses it when the conversation doesn’t pan out as planned. Millie’s neighbours, a couple, have a brief break from their sad, communication-deficient relationship when they try to investigate the source of a “festering stink” in their apartment block.
Over the past year, I’ve read many contemporary novels that skew the idea that meaning and purpose for women can be derived from a big career and an enviable family life. For a while, especially around the early 2010s, this seemed like the dominant narrative surrounding women and working, with the idea of ‘female empowerment’ often entangled with careerism and the accumulation of wealth. There was, and still remains in publishing, a deluge of self-help manuals and memoirs from noted career women, rhapsodising on how best to work your way up the corporate ladder, or how to unlock the perfect work-life balance.
Criticism of corporate feminism has been well-vocalised: that these aspirations are only achievable to a small stratum of women (already rich, white) and ignore class realities; as well as how these ideas dilute real socio-political action in the service of a more palatable, marketable and mostly useless brand of empowerment.
Even though that kind of narrow, have-it-all narrative feels mostly laughable and corny now, its grip on culture has felt sustained (despite everything, Girlboss just launched their own version of LinkedIn for millennial women). But in these novels, the protagonists have simply marked these aspirations as unwanted and undesirable.
There has been Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a darkly deadpan novel about a devoted store clerk who optimises her entire being around her job, defying Japanese social mores to start a family and have what is perceived as a proper career, to the dismay of everyone around her. “I am one of those cogs, going round and round,” she intones with a sort of robotic reverence. (Murata herself worked at a convenience store for eighteen years). In Leila Slimani’s Adele, a story of a self-destructive woman in the throes of a sex addiction, the titular protagonist—a glamorous, upper-middle class newspaper reporter—resents her job because it is the antithesis of decadence and frivolity. Her wealth “smells of work” she decrees while thinking about her cushy, privileged life. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation the rich, waspy, unnamed narrator is fired from her mindless gallery job, and decides to tap out completely and drug herself into total oblivion, in the hope of awakening a year later reborn.
In The New Me, it’s unclear what Millie really hopes for. (The Cut asked this question too when profiling the writer, leading with the title: ‘What do Halle Butler’s Women Want?’).
Reading the novel, I get the sense that Butler is interested in not only detailing the depressing nature of undignified, meaningless work, but also in exposing how modern work culture—especially those that apply to women and ambition—can completely warp someone’s priorities and personal desires.
It’s that tension that I’ve always found funny about toothless, ethically-dubious women’s initiatives that revolve around championing women in the workforce. This idea that you’re in control, that you’re taking charge of your own life, that you’re an individual, only for your wants and ambitions to be supplanted and confined by the system.
Millie is not ambitious, but her motivations are purely individualistic. Her concern for others are purely facile and self-serving, and she doesn’t even try to build up any relationships at work that could lead to any sort of unanimity or understanding. Instead, she desperately clings to the possibility that her salvation lies in her own self-improvement. The best bits of the novel are Millie’s frantic, funny and slightly unhinged dialogue with herself, where she plots her path to a seemingly better, more fulfilling life. She internally runs through different activities of consumption like a checklist that she needs to tick off, more work. But this is Butler’s strength: tart, short paragraphs that capture the quick rhythm of someone’s scheming in overdrive:
I should read a book, I should make some friends, I should write some emails, I should go to the movies, I should get some exercise, I should unclench my muscles, I should get a hobby, I should buy a plant, I should call my exes, all of them, and ask for advice, I should figure out why no one wants to be around me, I should start going to the same bar every night, become a regular, I should volunteer again, I should get a cat or plant, or some nice lotion or some Whitestripes, start using a laundry service, start taking myself both more and less seriously.
These lists are mostly speculative, but they reach her real life when the prospect of a permanent role arrives, sending her down a spiral of betterment. She soaks her dirty opaque tights in her bath, she spring cleans her closet, scrubs her bathroom floor and makes salad. But mostly, she shops: new clothes, expensive quinoa, a month-long trial at her local Yoga studio.
It’s deluded, but it’s also something I continue to fall for: the idea that I’m just a few consumer choices away from transforming my life. I’ll put on the right face creams and say that I will never order take-out again. I download apps that will limit my social media use. I read. I think deeply about saving money. I feel good, even hopeful, about myself, until inevitably I’m drinking soft drinks in my bed and letting dirty laundry pile up in my room. And then I feel disgusted with myself all over again.
Butler’s novel doesn’t often a solution to any of this – the soul-sucking work, the boundless consumerism, the profound alienation, because what is it? It’s inescapable, unending. At least in her novel, Butler gives us an opportunity to laugh at and commiserate our own self-loathing, deadening conversations with co-workers and stale, hardened office kitchen donuts.
Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic living in Birraranga / Melbourne. She has written for The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, VICE, among other publications. She is also the co-founding editor of Gusher magazine, an annual print music magazine written by women and non-binary people. She tweets at @itrimboli.