The New Me by Halle Butler proves that it is possible for a book to simultaneously confirm all our worst fears about the meaninglessness of modern life and to also serve as an argument for why it’s (mostly) worth living.
Millie is a thirty-year-old temp starting yet another low-paying office job as an assistant receptionist at an upscale design studio. She dislikes all of the women she works with and spends her considerable amount of free time overhearing their conversations and basking in how much more vapid and frivolous they are than her. She spends her evenings at the messy apartment her parents pay for, watching Forensic Files on a loop, eating the sad dinners that she can afford on her $12 an hour salary, and getting drunk on booze that she bought with money she could’ve used for food instead. If reading any of this is making you feel like a mirror is being mockingly held in your face, you are part of a gloriously miserable troupe known as Millennials. With infectious mirth Butler hits on the ceaseless anxiety, manic rage, and chronic helplessness that is existing in the 21st century.
The plot is minimalist, taking place over a period of a couple months as Millie prepares for the possibility of going from “temp to perm” at the studio. At first, she fantasizes and then even anticipates the ways this would change her life. With a desperate excitement that is so universal it hurts, she daydreams about financial stability. In the midst of one of her reveries she muses, “I could have friends if I had more money. I could be easier to get along with if I had more stability. … I could be who I wanted to be — calm, cool, self-assured, self-reliant, independent enough to attract people who could enjoy my company because we’re all independent people doing what we have to do to get by. … Not like who I am now, flailing, filled with puke, thinking about death and feeling angry all the time.” It is exactly this clash between the snark and selfishness that makes up so much of her thoughts, and this aching desire for change that makes her such a complex character.
Sprinkled throughout the book are a handful of chapters that follow characters other than Millie. There is a co-worker who gets a dog but becomes so obsessed with the social possibilities her new puppy creates that when her friends don’t seem interested, she sabotages an entire evening in retaliation. Then there is a couple who live in Millie’s building who rediscover some passion for each other through investigating the rancid smell coming from Millie’s apartment. And a few follow her boss, and from this perspective we from the beginning know that Millie is never getting hired permanently at the studio, that in fact her boss deeply dislikes her. The outside perspectives we get of Millie are less surprising, and more a confirmation of suspicions that we already suspect are being omitted due to the insular bubble she exists within.
Millie hates the one friend she does have, Sarah, who spends all their time together gossiping about the job she hates. Millie plays the role of supportive friend, encouraging Sarah to stand up to the boss who disrespects her and to look for new work. In contrast to the endless stream of sarcasm and cynicism we get from Millie’s first-person narration where she expresses deep hatred for Sarah, she talks to her in the language of a self-help guru, with constant mentions of personal worth and meaning. Sarah responds by reminding Millie that she doesn’t have the luxury of having parents pay for her apartment and uses her student loan debts as a write-off for all of her problems.
Millie is a voracious reader of pop psychology, the book’s title being a fittingly ironic reference to this. She regularly reads articles claiming to have the secrets to a happy and valuable life. This leads to her deep cleaning her apartment well after it has become too filthy to exist in, and to spontaneously join a yoga class. She makes plans to read books (never mentioning any specific titles) and to watch “films” (instead of the trashy true-crime TV she watches compulsively). But the high of these short-term solutions and goals quickly fade and she returns to her routine of inertia and disdain.
The genius of Butler’s satire is in the way she reveals how the interior self we have in our minds conflicts so farcically with the self we present to the world. Millie is all hard edge and self-awareness in her mind, but at her job and with other people she is passive and crippled by indecision. This is shown in a scene of pure agony when, after the studio job falls through, Millie works at a call center where she must sell season memberships to the opera to a list of random people. She finds herself battling through the complete disinterest of the person on the line while having her supervisor terrorizing her from behind. The Millie who is so savage in her criticisms of people as a narrator is completely helpless in the face of real-world abuse.
Most of all, The New Me captures the yearning for meaning in a world where everything feels increasingly meaningless. There are countless articles and books telling us how to live our best lives as if the secret to happiness is a recipe with countless ingredients and all you have to do is try enough until you find the one for you. Butler laughs in the face of that delusion, showing life for the endless string of compromises and indignities that it is. The world is falling apart around us, and with an interesting narrative choice at the end, Butler adds her own version of a solution to the secret-to-life: do what you can, submit to what is out of your control, and enjoy the meaninglessness of what you have. You may not be “happy” (whatever that means in the 21st century), but maybe you’ll at least be content.