Although released four years apart, there can be no denying that Halle Butler’s debut novel, Jillian, is now like a “sister book” to The New Me (you know, the way Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore are “sister albums”). Variations on a theme, if you will, and an extremely grim one. Even if there are actually freaks in this world who–in the wake of corona “forcing” them to work at home–have expressed “missing” the daily routine and “sense of connection” that they purportedly believe comes from going into an office. Reading either of Butler’s books would cure anyone of that disease, or rather, delusion.
Like Butler, Millie, The New Me’s wayward protagonist, is originally from Bloomington, Illinois (as the shout-out to the Bloomington-Normal train station indicates when she goes home to visit her parents). Everything about her existence is decidedly average, and maybe that’s what bothers her most of all. Because when she was younger, she felt she was different, more special than the basics around her. As her mother points out, “Those little Polaroids of you and your classmates. They all listed The Lion King, Jesus, colors, family under their favorite things, and you said your favorite film was the PBS version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and your hobbies were foreign films and painting. God, they didn’t know what to do with you.” But ultimately that “individuality” doesn’t really translate to anything, nor is it much of an “asset” to functioning in the “real world.” Millie learns that all too well, even if it’s a slow, dread-drenched revelation that comes to its most complete fruition at her latest temp job for a design showroom called Lisa Hopper.
Of course, there would be no Millie without Megan (Butler displaying a certain fondness for M-name main characters) in Jillian. While her eponymous coworker might be the inspiration for the title of the book, Megan is the central anchor of the non-story, letting her contempt for her thirty-five year old “superior” shine through in both internal thoughts and the ones she expresses to the two other people she ever talks to: her live-in boyfriend, Randy, and friend, Amanda. Like Cady Heron unable to stop talking shit about Regina George, one could easily envision Megan also saying to herself, “I could hear people getting bored with me, but I couldn’t stop. It just kept coming up like word vomit.”
Megan is still twenty-four, yet somehow knows that Jillian is her fate, hence the unbridled ire she feels toward her, as though resenting her for not revealing a better outcome to someone who already feels as hopeless as Megan does about her imminent “future,” more of a demise (or gradual slide into lassitude) than anything else. She knows she should be more concerned about the fact that she’s working as a middling admin/receptionist at a doctor’s office where she stares at pictures of people’s colons all day. And part of her hates Jillian for parading attempts at still being aspirational at all. For once you’re in a situation like this for so long, there’s rarely a way out.
Megan goes through the motions not just at work, but in her limited personal life as well. She’s disgusted by everyone she encounters, including at parties where Randy is the one more interested in being there. In the performance of socialization. A peer named Carrie serves as the emblem for everything Megan can’t stand: someone who appears to actually be “happy” with the work they’re doing, and that happiness radiating in a way that makes other people want to be around them.
From Megan is born Millie, who might just as easily be the former a mere six years later at thirty. Sensing the importance of “locking down” this latest job, Millie is simultaneously horrified by the prospect. For, deep down, she knows that the “promise” of a better future by way of a better salary (a trap designed to keep one perpetually on the hamster wheel) simply isn’t going to secure her the happiness she’s been made to believe it will. And Millie isn’t alone in being a victim of this false indoctrination, instead in the company of an entire age demographic. For, as it’s been pointed out, many readers believe “Millie” is a deliberate nod to the word “millennial”–the generation most fucked (until Gen Z fully comes of age) over in terms of not getting anything that was promised to previous ones, particularly their boomer parents, who seem even now to still be hoarding all that good capitalistic wealth.
Millie is a more depressing, doomed iteration of Megan–and the result of a life spent shuffled around in the ersatz environment that is the office (all incarnations of which ultimately prove to be the same). As one of the last of a dying breed to still even use temp agencies (an institution as archaic as office life itself), many aspects about Millie’s inability to “truly belong” in this setting echo the themes presented in Jill Sprecher’s 1997 film, Clockwatchers.
She cannot muster the same level of fakeness without the benefit of a higher pay grade. All those veneers of “civility” and “pleasantness” belied by the patent hostility and passive aggressiveness exhibited in the workplace (whether spoken or written in an email). All that dissatisfaction with no way to be channeled other than eating like shit (when not eating shit to placate your boss), and often far larger portions than one should–stuff yourself until you’ve stuffed down your desire to rebel! This, too, is why Millie’s description as being unkempt, malodorous and slightly overweight takes the Megan character to the next natural progression in terms of “the phases” of office life. Which is really more like one endless phase of deterioration until the pension finally rolls in. And even that probably won’t support you for very long, should you choose to live past your “expiration date.”
The increasingly more wholly realized failure of the societal push for offices to be the way we conduct “business” and the medium through which we choose to “work” is further accentuated in The New Me via the elucidation of the mind-dulling it causes. Just to be in these surroundings day in, day out is enough to serve as a lobotomizing experience, manifested by Millie noting, “I recognize so much that it bores me. I recognize that the Formica is covering a slab of cheap wood pulp, and that, among the snacks in the refrigerator, some of them contain wood pulp. I know that the woman checking her phone in the corner, pretending I’m not here, is wrapped in some distraction so utterly meaningless that it should, if she reflected on it, shake her to her core.” Yet Millie has no other real goal in life other than to “fall in line” as she was instructed. To fulfill every parent’s dream of creating a child who can, at the very least, support themselves. Due to a series of light mental breakdowns, Millie isn’t quite there yet. Though she assures herself, “I try to cry and think about the things that I’ll be grateful for in the future, once I have my life together a little bit more.” Naturally, this is what we all tell ourselves constantly as a self-soothing technique.
Even the title, of course, is meant to be ironic. For no job or income bracket will ever make you “new,” or at least not as new as you had hoped. There is no magic wand to “generate” happiness, even if Ariana Grande claims, “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems/Must not have had enough money to solve ’em.” And whenever you do manage to sustain some “version” of a “new you,” it’s likely because you had no choice but to finally suppress all the aspirational ideals of the old, more authentic (and naive) you. Thus, the cover image of an extreme close-up on a blonde girl with dead eyes that looks like she could have been plucked from an Anne Taintor magnet. There’s a fly on her hair (Mike Pence style), suggesting that just beneath the surface is an unrelenting mental decay thanks to both working in an office and performing the “decompressing” activities (mainly binge-watching and overeating) required to keep “working” in an office without killing yourself or someone else.
Then there is the drinking that becomes necessary in order to cope as well. And the kind of “fellow normals” you end up consorting with as a means to experience empathy and understanding. The constant search for someone else who might not make you feel so completely alone always turning up short, producing someone so utterly boring, frivolous and self-involved that you can’t believe you haven’t yet reconciled that being alone is the only way. As Millie explains it, “I get socked in the chest, thinking about how things never change. How they’re on a slow-rolling slope downward, and you can think up a long list of things you’d rather do, but because of some kind of inertia, or hard facts about who you are and what life is, you always end up back where you started, sitting drunk on a hard, sticky chair with someone you hate.” Appropriately, Millie has already long ago lost her live-in boyfriend, whereas Megan loses hers on a gradual downward spiral throughout the course of Jillian. No, Millie has no need for the illusions of domestic partnership anymore. She’s been reduced entirely to an “office worker.” With all the sexlessness and lack of excitement that entails.
“There’s a lot of repetition in my life. No real routine or narrative, just a lot of repetition,” Millie states at the beginning of the book. This, in a nutshell, is the crux of what office existence is. And yet, so many are still clinging to it as a way of life because, to them, it seems to give a better illusion of the break in the repetition than sitting at home on their computer where, somehow, the purposelessness and drudgery seem more palpable to them than the “community” setup of an office. But whether “open concept” or the classic cubicle model, there is no connection or camaraderie to be had in such a setting. No matter how hard people try to force it with their manufactured “cheerfulness.” For fuck’s sake, no one is that cheerful about a team building activity planned at a bowling alley as a “fun treat.”
It is the tersely, coldly and clinically delivered descriptions–so sparse, yet so filled with evocative imagery–that mirror the tone of office banality and contempt. Take, for example, Millie describing, “Edwin McCain’s ‘I’ll Be’ plays in the background. They are allowed to choose their own music.” This simple laying bare of the facts is what makes The New Me so accurately chilling. And that anyone, anywhere on this planet would voluntarily play “I’ll Be.” Even if it was during the period in which the song was still a “hit” on the charts. What this represents, to be sure, is that people–and office ilk in particular–are so perfectly comfortable with mediocrity. Mundanity. A white noise type of “plodding along.” They have to be.
All the while, Millie is quietly screaming on the inside, wondering if she’s the only one who feels like she’s going crazy. Somewhere within, Millie knows this suppressed rage must be affecting her work performance. Or, more importantly at these kinds of jobs, her ability to lick asshole with a smile. Thus, the constant assumption that every time Karen (yes, Karen), her supervisor, comes over to her desk, Millie assumes she is “going to fire me. I’m not so much bracing for it as I am having a kind of paroxysm, adrenaline filling me up, and a loud, deep voice shouting yeah well fuck you too in my ears.”
What makes it all worse, for both Megan and Millie, is that despite how much they loathe their “professions,” it’s all they have to keep them going, to give them any form of raison d’être. This shitty, invented clerical work that amounts to little more than “filling a seat.” Still, it’s become the only aspect of their identity they can still recognize.
Both women end up coming to terms with their (non-)fate in some arcane way, seeming to apprehend that this really is “it,” to answer Peggy Lee’s question, “Is that all there is?” Just endless days of stapling, filing, spreadsheets, shredding, online shopping, hoping there has to be more. The office-centric rigmarole. And one has to ask if, many decades from now (if there are, in fact, “many” left), future generations will look back in horror at the barbaric conditions bestowed upon their forebears as they demand the robot in front of them to do their bidding. Then again, according to The Matrix philosophy, it is we who will end up doing the bidding for even less human overlords: the machines. In which case, it would be endlessly tragic to look back on office life as a period of “humaneness” in the working world.