Apathy seeps through every page of The New Me by Halle Butler. It offers a bleak window into the life of 30-year-old Millie, who is working as a receptionist temp and flailing through life.
Millie’s malaise manifests in a bitterness – hinged on cutting takedowns of those around her – that depression sufferers will relate to. When your personal life feels like a rotation of emptiness and small failures, it’s hard not to spread the gloom.
Millie seethes inside, and brief changes in perspective reveal that, while maybe not as vicious, her peers are similarly apathetic. However, mirroring real life, the interpersonal dialogues don’t cut as deep as the internal monologues. In the real world, the characters get by on a cycle of vacuous conversation and empty pleasantries. Millie’s closest friendship revolves around both parties half-listening to the other’s complaints, and numbing these interactions with alcohol. The book opens with colleagues delivering false compliments to each other and discussing such banalities as online returns, house prices, and an ex-colleague they all claim to hate. “The whole scene is a bitter cliché, the expectations and ego barely hidden behind the flimsy presentation of friendliness,” Millie observes.
In a similarly depressing ‘millennial novel’, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the unnamed protagonist feels more detached from our realities with her mission to drug herself into a year of sleep. Butler’s Millie, meanwhile, is painfully relatable. Hers is a more humdrum life. Her office is dour, populated by women who lack personalities. Millie doesn’t enjoy any part of her job (or, indeed, life), yet longs to succeed in the temp role and receive a permanent contract – the key, she reckons, to unlocking a newer, sparklier version of herself. Her 20-something listlessness has become numbness; the light at the end of the tunnel is the promise of a regular paycheque so she can at least enjoy small home comforts like food deliveries and trendy clothes. It’s a cold reflection of a society that lacks meaningful work and engaging conversation, and looks to mindless consumption to fill the void.