The young woman works in an office. Her job is tedious: data entry, or coordinating the logistics for meaningless products, or proofreading niche trade publications with improbable names. She has no friends or resents the one she has. Her boyfriend is distant. Perhaps he’s not even her boyfriend anymore, but still, she thinks of him often. She rarely eats. Absent what you might call drive, her life proceeds by rote until suddenly, by chance or by choice, her routine is disrupted by a speculative twist: a purification cult, an apocalyptic illness, a psycho-technological experiment, an elective coma.
This synopsis describes a number of American novels that have been published since 2015, including Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Halle Butler’s The New Me—by no means an exhaustive list.
Only the last of these avoids narrative gimmicks; in Butler’s novel, the closest thing to dystopia is an unbroken future of middle management. These books share more than superficial similarities, numerous though they are. Two protagonists are orphans, while another is permanently estranged from her parents. Two plots feature moments of recent political upheaval: 9/11 and the Occupy movement. Two more include unnerving descriptions of peeling an orange (OK, one’s a clementine). In the nonfictional world, these authors have blurbed one another’s books, and on Amazon they’re algorithmically linked; peruse one title, and another will auto-populate on the homepage. What unites this group of novels most significantly, though, is affect. Written mostly in cool first person, their narrators are remote avatars of contemporary malaise.
The appearance of such characters isn’t entirely new, of course. Simone De Beauvoir saw estrangement as the essential female condition in a world run by men (“woman is consigned to the category of Other”), and modern literature brims with women unwilling or unable to reconcile themselves to life. Take the heroines of Jean Rhys, for example, who, as Mary-Kay Wilmers wrote in a 1980 essay, all “suffer from a similar incapacity to wake up from a dream.” But where their external passivity is often the result of disfiguring inner turmoil—“Yes, I am sad, sad as a circus-lioness, sad as an eagle without wings, sad as a violin with only one string and that one broken,” thinks tragic Sasha Jensen in Good Morning, Midnight—the new heroines of contemporary fiction possess a kind of anhedonic equanimity, more numb than overwhelmed. As The New Me’s Millie puts it, “I am either calm or hollow, hard to say.”
Loopy and Alone
At the start of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, narrator “A”’s approach to life seems to mirror a dictate of her work as a freelance proofreader: “meaning was an obstacle . . . that my supervisors hoped I would avoid.” Adrift and chronically exhausted despite (or because of) the undemanding nature of her work, she feels that she is experiencing the world “as only someone who did not exist in it could.” Nonexistence is threaded throughout these novels, which are anchored by women who limply accept, if not actively seek, a sense of their own unreality. Mary, the protagonist of The Answers, explains her compulsive travel in the face of mounting personal debts this way: “I read somewhere that the first thing you learn when traveling is that you don’t exist—I didn’t want to stop not existing.” In Severance, narrator Candace likens herself to a ghost, a metaphor that furnishes the name of the photography blog she opens after a postgrad move to New York, devoted to quotidian images of yawning doormen, trash, pigeons. “Walking around aimlessly, without anywhere to go, anything to do, I was just a specter haunting the scene.” Her fellow city-dweller, the imperious antiheroine of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is the most committed of all to this state of being. After getting fired from a dull front desk position at a high-end art gallery called Ducat—for her frequent naps in the supply closet—she decides to take the hobby full-time. Clearing out her belongings, she feels “only disgust that I’d wasted so much time on unnecessary labor when I could have been sleeping and feeling nothing.” For Millie, bouncing from temp job to temp job, “every morning is just one more used-up day.”
Backstory only partly accounts for the totalizing nature of their ennui. Before reaching adulthood, we learn, Candace experienced the dual dislocations of immigrating to the Midwest from China and losing both of her parents—to a car accident and an unspecified illness, respectively. Moshfegh’s narrator is also a young orphan; while she was studying Art History at Columbia University, her father died of cancer and her mother from “pills and alcohol.” Mary, it turns out, was raised in a capital-P Patriarchal household by religious fanatics determined to shield her from the modern world’s impurities. She didn’t get a birth certificate, or a taste of real life, until an aunt sprung her from the nest at seventeen. But these adolescent traumas aren’t uniform across the novels, nor are they uniformly borne by the characters who do experience them: the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation seems more relieved than anything to be permanently free of the emotional vampires she called family. A more compelling explanation for their condition is the litany of indignities that constitutes this era of American life: economic precariousness, a dearth of meaningful work, the encroachment of advertising into ever more intimate spaces, homogenization, the overwhelming insipidness of both low and high culture, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and so on.
Even if, as Wood contends, “real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate,” rarely are their lives so hermetically sealed as the protagonists of this emerging genre.
Moshfegh’s narrator, for example, “[can’t] stand to watch regular television” and ingests news only in the form of “sensational headlines on the daily local papers at the bodega.” They read like a prefiguring of social media-fueled context collapse: “Bush versus Gore. Somebody important died, a child was kidnapped, a senator stole money, a famous athlete cheated on his pregnant wife.” Despairing equally of the “canned counterculture crap” purveyed by supposedly vanguard institutions like Ducat, she shits on the floor of their latest hacky exhibition on her way out. In The Answers, Mary is hounded by calls from debt collectors while dealing with the onset of myriad “undiagnosable illnesses,” the treatment of which only creates more debt. She begins to feel “that the use of my own body, the only thing I really owned, had somehow been repossessed.” Kleeman’s narrator spends long passages describing creepy commercials that make up most of what’s on TV, like the skincare ad in which a woman pulls off a series of beautiful faces as if they were silicone masks—a visual analogue to the identity slippages that plague “A” throughout the novel. Shopping at a ubiquitous supercenter called Wally’s, she’s treated to a pitch that’s become a staple of real-world marketing: “Consumers are Creators.” Butler’s Millie feels “trapped in a loop,” deprived of a trajectory that might give her life purpose, or at least a future: “Back at my desk I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to sit at this desk and slowly collect money.”
The affliction takes on both its most literal and political character in Severance. Candace is working at a multinational publishing company called Spectra when “The End” arrives: a highly contagious and fatal infection called Shen Fever. Manifestly a metaphor for capitalist greed, it’s so named for its origin in the factories of Shenzhen, where there is little oversight or protection for workers—and where, accordingly, so much American production has been outsourced. As the Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, her link in this chain of exploitation entails sourcing foil-embossed paper and gemstones from China for special editions of the good book that will be shipped to the States and sold in “a Barnes & Noble, a Books-A-Million, a Christian bookstore, a gas station Christian shop, a Hallmark kiosk, or a megachurch gift shop.” Candace proves to be immune to Shen Fever, but those who succumb are driven to cycle, Zombie-like, through “the most banal activities . . . on an infinite loop. It is a fever of repetition, of routine.” The implication isn’t subtle: these symptoms are only an exaggerated version of the way that most twenty-first century Americans—addicted to work and addled by nostalgia—already live.
The most instructive passage in Severance might be Ling Ma’s alternate history of Occupy Wall Street, in which the Zuccotti Park protests are brought down within a week by the specter of the pandemic, which makes the “young, healthy” activists look “decadent and out of touch.” Images of the protesters chanting without surgical masks deplete their dwindling reserves of public sympathy; it should come as no surprise that most of them get sick. In their attempt to hold the feckless beneficiaries of President Obama’s Recovery Act to account, the demonstrators wind up accepting a bailout of their own: largely uninsured, the movement’s last stragglers are lured out of the park with the promise of free medical care. But Shen Fever does more than kneecap potentially liberatory projects. It also enables reactionary ones. “The travel ban of visitors from Asian countries had passed. It would go into effect immediately,” Candace reads on the New York Times homepage.
This points to another feature of these novels, in which attempts at cooperative living tend to be disastrous. Intrigued by their mysterious pamphlets—“Many individuals operating in this day and age are familiar with the disheartening experience of becoming ill, anxious, or otherwise SICK IN THE SOUL despite having made good life choices”—“A” joins the New Christian Church of the Conjoined Eater in the final section of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Hopeful that for the first time ever she will know “what life demanded of me,” “A” is instead quickly cast out of the Church for her inability to shed Darkness and become Bright, a process of self-starvation and repression (or as the Eaters call it, “unremembering”). In The Answers, insolvency drives Mary to sign onto the Girlfriend Experiment, a scientific undertaking funded by the famous actor Kurt Sky that “assigns the roles fulfilled by a life partner to a team of specialized team members to enact Relational Experiments meant to illuminate the inner workings of love and companionship.” She’s eventually fired by Sky for misrepresenting her background, and the GX reveals little apart from the depressing fact that “feelings [of obligation] might seem like love in the brain.”
Despite Ma’s sympathetic depiction of Occupy, even Severance gives way to a dim view of the collective. The ragtag group of Shen Fever survivors Candace is absorbed by quickly bends to the will of the authoritarian Bob, a Juuling former IT technician who promises to lead them to an all-inclusive Facility in Needling, Illinois, that turns out to be nothing more than a dead mall. When Bob discovers Candace is pregnant—the result of a final encounter with her ex-boyfriend Jonathan—he attempts to keep her in the mall against her will. Managing to escape with the keys to the group’s Nissan Maxima, Candace drives to Chicago, where she plans to raise her soon-to-be-born daughter alone, “untethered from all family except me”—a depressing default to the nuclear family after the end of the world as we know it.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation offers the most egregious fantasia of individualism. Moshfegh’s narrator might be the only one who can be fairly said to transform over the course of the novel. If at the start she struggles “not to hate everyone and everything,” by the book’s conclusion, she “[was] soft and calm and felt things,” becoming the kind of person who can detect “majesty and grace” in the movement of a willow tree. But this return to the world is enabled only by a complete and total withdrawal from it: a months-long medicated slumber induced by a cocktail of powerful sleeping pills. That and the martyrdom of her long-suffering friend Reva, whose death on 9/11 seems to cinch the narrator’s redemption in the novel’s bathetic conclusion.
With this literature of relentless detachment, we seem to have arrived at the inverse of what James Wood famously called “hysterical realism,” describing a strain of fiction overflowing with eccentric characters and detail that, in its exaggerated vitality, depicts life as “fervid intensity of connectedness.” What these novels constitute instead is a kind of denuded realism. Rather than an excess of intimacy, there is a lack; rather than overly ornamental character sketches, there are half-finished ones. Personality languishes, and desire has been almost completely erased—except, of course, the desire for nothing. (“I wanted Klonopin,” Moshfegh’s narrator thinks. “I wanted Xanax.”)
However individually stylish or inventive, taken together, the novels tend to replicate the sensations of apathy and tedium they seek to describe. This may be intentional, but the outcome is more or less the same one Wood observed twenty years ago: fiction that depicts people who “are not really alive, not fully human,” whose style “seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself.” Even if, as Wood contends, “real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate,” rarely are their lives so hermetically sealed as the protagonists of this emerging genre. For many young women laboring under the grindstone of American capitalism, the operative feeling of the last ten or fifteen years has not been numbness but suffering. While the characters in these novels have in some cases experienced profound loss, their listless narration renders pain an abstraction. For the most part, denuded realism sidesteps the challenge of depicting the effects of alienating forces on people who do not already live in artificial isolation—who exist at the nexus of various social, familial, and professional relationships. In other words, the kind of people most of us still are.
There’s an interstitial chapter in The New Me where Millie flees to her parents’ house after being dropped by her temp agency. A weekend in the suburbs offers a respite from her nihilistic spiral:
On the drive home [from dinner], I lie down in the back seat. The seatbelt twists around my guts. I’m slightly drunk, and I watch the streetlights pass above my head. These beautiful people always keep a box of tissues in the back seat of their car. Their politeness and rightness, to me, in this moment, is boundless.
It’s a moving, vulnerable admission bound up in Millie’s sublimated anxieties about disappointing her parents. But the scene is a marked outlier in an otherwise cynical novel that considers humankind too stupid to “[think] about the scope of history that would evade them, the sea of identical people who would replace them as time made its waves back and forth, back and forth . . . ”
That line isn’t an invitation to consider your own smallness before a vast universe. It’s a repudiation of the idea that we can mean anything to the world—or each other—at all. This dismal outlook is endemic to denuded realism, whether a particular novel asserts that society is nothing but a pyramid of idiots and backbiters, or that all human relationships are doomed to splinter under the weight of capital accumulation and unchecked technological advancement. The difference is ultimately immaterial; in their inflexibility, both premises preclude the possibility of unalienated life. Only Severance, with its Occupy interlude, gestures toward an alternative, and that subplot is dispatched within the space of a page.
For many young women laboring under the grindstone of American capitalism, the operative feeling of the last ten or fifteen years has not been numbness but suffering.
No wonder, then, that all of these women are consigned to their lot. What’s the point? From adolescent traumas to adulthood indignities, their anomie has been overdetermined. This haphazard accumulation of injury undercuts the commentary these novels set out to make: whether their protagonists are constitutionally incapable of pleasure, or the world no longer supplies it, is rarely made clear. A better sendup of our discontented times would grapple frankly with its emotional modulations. Pain and boredom, after all, are made more legible by their opposite. Instead, the uniformity within and among these novels suggests that the genre has gotten stuck in a loop: doomed, like a victim of Shen Fever, to repeat itself in perpetuity.
Tame My Life
Denuded realism might be here to stay, but 2020 has already offered up what feels like its apotheosis: The Exhibition of Persephone Q, a debut novel by Jessi Jezewska Stevens. Set in the aftermath of 9/11, it tracks a few months in the life of Percy, an emotionally stunted thirty-three-year-old, who, shortly after her impulsive wedding, is seized by the impulse to suffocate her new husband in his sleep. This sounds more violent than the gesture really is—“I pinned Misha’s nostrils. He held his breath”—and its potential fatality is somewhat unconvincing. Percy is nonetheless scared enough by her own behavior to start sleeping during the day and walking at night, spending as little time with Misha as possible. “So began my life as a somnambulist,” she explains. If her capitulation to this new urge feels rushed, it’s made clear early on that Percy shares the same resignation as her counterparts in the novels discussed above: “I was the sort of person who accepted rather than shaped her circumstances.”
The Exhibition of Persephone Q samples liberally from these books in more than just its mood. Like “A,” Percy holds a low-stakes editing job, polishing tracts with titles like Saying What You Want and Mean for a self-help writer who lives in her building (“It was not such an easy subject to explain, and we ourselves were having trouble knowing what we wanted and saying what we meant”). Like Candace, she is pregnant and intends to keep the baby but has told no one of her condition. And like Mary, whose pain drives her to try meditation, yoga, and eventually expensive “Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia” treatments from an enigmatic man named Ed, Percy has lately turned to the New Age, making regular appointments with a psychic. “I had not always been the sort of person who consults the stars, the positions of the planets, to link her menstrual cycles to phases of the moon,” she confesses, “but recently I found myself receptive to any ideology that might tame my life.” Again, there is just a single friend. The death of a parent lurks in Percy’s background. Even oranges make another appearance. And the novel can’t help but recall My Year of Rest and Relaxation in its setting, with Ground Zero a “great gap tooth against the gullet of the sky.”
These novels are anchored by women whose sense of their own unreality is limply accepted if not actively sought.
The one place Stevens pushes the project forward might be in her depiction of the digital world’s erosion of our selfhood. She captures the more anodyne forms of voyeurism the early internet enabled, as when Percy uses an unnamed search engine to check in on the other women who share her name: a porn star, a librarian, and a cancer research scientist. But Stevens also hints ominously at the advertising-driven surveillance machine the internet would soon become. Misha, a PhD dropout, is building a company called Insta-Ad. The “future of online shopping,” his technology uses encrypted cookies to “wed” ads and consumers “in real time.” Like an Oppenheimer of the algorithm, Misha often comes home saying, “Honestly, I am not feeling good about this at all.” But this thread can only go so far in mitigating what otherwise feels like a rehash. The woman at Persephone Q’s center, preparing to have a child but unable even to return a set of kitchen knives, strains credulity. It may be time for her, and us, to get over it.
Nowhere Else to Be
Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, published on the same day as Stevens’s novel, points to a new direction for the atomized young women of contemporary fiction. A book about “the struggle for happiness under late capitalism” according to its jacket copy, Temporary threatens at first to promise more of the same. “I just don’t love giving anyone the wrong idea, or even the right idea,” Leichter’s narrator thinks on page fourteen. “I don’t want to give any ideas at all.” But this familiar deference aside, the novel quickly sets itself apart. Temporary jettisons the dry, understated style of Persephone Q and emerges instead as a surreal picaresque. A permanent temp like Millie, Leichter’s narrator is posted by her voluble supervisor Farren in a series of bizarre positions, from mate on a pirate ship to human barnacle to assassin’s assistant, until she winds up, despite her best efforts, at the Agency for Fugitive Temps, further from “the steadiness” than ever before.
If the novel’s parade of quirky characters and occupations—witches, ghosts, bank robbers, airship pilots—can start to feel a bit, well, hysterical, Temporary reverses Wood’s original proposition. By embracing absurdity, Leichter evades realism while borrowing from reality. She knows that work life can be as ridiculous as it is awful: “Every office has a long-haired man who doesn’t trim his sideburns, who tells his coworkers things they don’t want to hear, who does a passable impression of a bird.” And the extremity of the Temporary’s circumstances works to set off nuances in the relationships it depicts. Take the pirate ship’s “first mate of Human Resources” who pressures the narrator into sleeping with him, insisting that the woman she’s replacing used to do so “all the time.” “He isn’t the first man to miscalculate what a woman would or wouldn’t do,” she thinks,
and with his hands under my skirt under the sails under the sky, no one hears a thing . . . [In the morning] I brew him the best pot of coffee he’s ever had in his life, and I clean the filter, and then I brew another, and another, and we don’t exchange a single word about it.
Temporary is also the first of these novels to acknowledge solidarity as a salve against capitalism’s worst offenses. In one of several faux-mythological chapters relating the origin story of The First Temp, Leichter includes the moment this figure became “the First Temp to Cry in the Bathroom at Work.” Composure recovered, she emerges to find herself in a huddle of her colleagues, who “held mugs of tea and tubes of mascara and pouches of chocolate.”
“It’s OK!” they said, patting her shoulders and fixing her hair. “We’ll wait until you’re feeling better. We’ve got nothing else to do. We have nowhere else to be, only here with you.”
The moment, of course, is short-lived. As fellow temps, they are soon “dispersed again, through the office, out into the world.” But showing this social disintegration as it happens, rather than taking it for granted, gives Temporary a poignancy most of its predecessors lack. Leichter’s sensitivity to the fleeting pleasures of precariousness never makes her starry-eyed. In the end, the only thing that can save her narrator from dead-end work is chance: it turns out she’s been heir to a massive corporation all along. Still, with its belief in the prospect of “something more sacred than survival,” the novel ultimately takes up a mantle proffered five years earlier by the closing lines of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine: “Life was everywhere, inescapable, imperative.” Thankfully, it isn’t as antiseptic as some fiction would have you believe.