“In the windowless back offices of a designer furniture showroom, women stand in a circle, stuffed into ill-fitting black jeans, grey jeans, olive jeans […] One of them is explaining something from her real, nonwork life, something about returning something she bought online – the frustration and indignity of the experience”. So begins Halle Butler’s searingly sharp, funny and frightening second novel, The New Me, a story of a young life which shrivels just as it should be blooming.
Millie, Butler’s protagonist, is gauche, unkempt and directionless. She spends her days reluctantly answering the phone at the latest in a long line of temp jobs, and whiles away each evening eating fried Brussels sprouts and watching true-crime series on her laptop. She is infuriated both by her vapid workmates, and by her own inability to move beyond their petty concerns. She is stuck in a superficial and solitary existence, devoid of human connection and meaning. However, when the possibility of a permanent job arises, Millie dares to hope that this endless cycle of vacuity might be broken, that she might be on the cusp of becoming a real adult, a real person, with friends, responsibilities and maybe even a gym membership. Although certain that this is all she needs to finally achieve happiness, Millie will soon realise that no such quick-fix solution can single-handedly solve her problems, nor stop up the gaping emptiness which gnaws at her insides.
With this bleak subject matter and claustrophobic focus, one might assume that The New Me would make for quite depressing reading. However, Butler is a master of irony and comedic observation, and her work is striking in its ability to make you laugh, even in its darkest moments. Millie’s narration is acerbic and unforgiving, recording all the small hypocrisies and stupidities of her world before they can sneak away unnoticed. She sees straight through the insincerity of her colleagues’ conversations, noting how, when one exclaims in mock horror, “oh my god you guys look at me I’m such a hipster” […] another smiles, barely containing her disgust, and says “No, you look cute” with her words and “Oh my god shut the fuck up” with her eyes.”
While her words snigger at the fakery which surrounds her, they also seethe with carefully contained rage. When Karen, the “senior receptionist”, forgets her name and calls out “Hi Maddie!”, Millie replies with an innocuous “Hi!”, but privately sneers, “I want to go up to her and prostrate myself on her desk, my ribs activating her shitty gold stapler […] while I explain to her the difference between Mildred and Madison”. The anger which swells through this passage seems to consume vast swathes of the novel; it roils beneath the impassive surface of Millie’s interactions and observations, fuelled by all the vacuous comments and pointless rules which populate her workplace. It riles against all the small injustices of her life in a world which pays no attention to her desires, her opinions, or even her name: a world which cares little for her very existence. And here, I think that Butler captures the frustration of many people of Millie’s age, people who have emerged, bright-eyed and optimistic, from the cradle of home and education, only to find that the world is not there to welcome to them, and not interested in what they have to say. Unless they manage to find something that motivates and inspires them, they will simply become trapped in the pointless churn of money which characterises a society driven by capitalism. As Millie so accurately and grimly puts it: “I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to come to this room and sit at this desk and slowly collect money”.
While reading The New Me, I was reminded of a line from Coriolanus, where Volumnia muses: “anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself / and so shall starve with feeding”. This seemed to me to be a very apt way of characterising Millie’s fury, the way that it eats away at her, giving her nothing, leaving her with nothing, simply hollowing out a huge space within her, so that all that remains is emptiness. As we smirk our way through Butler’s snappy prose, this feeling of hollowness creeps up on us, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly it seizes us, and won’t let us go. The novel deftly plunges us past the superficial trappings of modern life and into the loneliness of Millie’s mind, as she is haunted by the futility of her surroundings. It speaks to anyone questioning their direction and purpose, warning us against settling for mediocrity in work and friendship, and urging us to search for a fulfillment that exceeds our society’s markers of success.
So, although The New Me can confidently be described as an alienating and alarming novel, it is also a hugely important one. Butler’s precise and penetrating prose creates a monstrous but highly realistic vision of our world, and skilfully exposes the fatuous nature of that enduring fantasy: The American Dream.
Words by Emma Morgan