Sad Girls Inc.
Reading the women of late capitalism
Many moons ago, before I joined bookstagram or started engaging in Book Discourse on the Internet, I wrote an Instagram post titled “The Women of Late Capitalism”.
I was trying to find a way to talk about a trend I’d seen emerging in my reading, particularly in women-authored novels published in the last five years or so. If you’re into contemporary fiction written by women, I’m sure you’ll know the ones I mean. The women featured in these novels are frequently white, American, and middle-class, but not always. They live in large cities and tell their stories in claustrophobic first person – stories of being a woman in her late twenties or thirties, possibly living around a millennial flashpoint such as 9/11 or the 2008 financial crash. They feel alienated from the people around them, especially other women. They are exhausted by the routines they live within, the demands of a life lived under a capitalist system that feels as though it’s on the verge of extinction, and maybe it is.
These are the sad girls of millennial literature, the protagonists of books such as Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016), My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018), and The New Me by Halle Butler (2019). These novels all seemed to me to be circling the same kinds of questions – of how to square the demands of work with those of womanhood, how to manage the contradictory mandates women get from the societies we grow up within. It wasn’t until I read Severance by Ling Ma (2018) this year that I began to form more of an idea of not only what these novels were saying but where they could go from here.
Late capitalism: you’re living it
The term “late capitalism” when it was originally conceived referred to the period immediately preceding revolution, when the faults of the broken system become un-ignorable and the masses rise up against it. It’s evolved slightly since then, meandering through Fredric Jameson’s 1984 essay on postmodernist art and culture to arrive where it is now: frequently invoked on social media as a descriptor of a kind of pervasive absurdity. When the system throws up bizarre incongruities that make you want to
abscond from this mortal coil – that’s late capitalism, baby! It’s Jeff Bezos saying he can’t think of anything to do with his billions except put it into space travel, while his workers fear punishment for taking bathroom breaks. It’s working a job that exhausts you mentally and physically to attain happiness (or at least, the lifestyle that connotes it), all the while depleting yourself so much that you can’t attain the progression required to do this, let alone the happiness you’re told would come
The New Me
Millie, the protagonist of Halle Butler’s “The New Me”, is in the latter situation. As a temp worker struggling with depression and dreaming of making the fabled “temp-to-perm” transition, her precarious situation understandably collapses happiness and material success in her mind. It is unclear whether the things Millie covets are the means to the success or the markers of it: she fantasises about having “a clean winter coat, a Swatch, perfume, a haircut, boots both warm and fashionable, a good body, nonthreatening relationships, a clean kitchen, someone to talk to, really I would take anyone.” As Jia Tolentino points out in her review for The New Yorker, “Millie’s sadness and alienation might yield to medication and therapy—but how could she afford therapy on twelve dollars an hour?” Her unhappiness is tied to her precarious situation, which is in turn tied to her low
wage; it makes a twisted sort of sense therefore that she would conflate the possession of material things with having her emotional needs met. It’s the bullshit logic of late capitalism, when happiness becomes an aesthetic you can aspire to as much as, or maybe more so, than a feeling you could live within, make a home inside.
Convenience Store Woman
This logic isn’t exclusive to “The New Me”. Across a lot of these novels, the “kind” of women the characters are is dictated by the kinds of things they own. We see this abundantly in “Convenience Store Woman”: Keiko, a convenience store worker in her
mid-thirties, relishes the clarity of her job at a convenience store, where her employee manual tells her how to respond to every situation. It is the contradictory demands that she faces outside of the store that bother her; the encouragement from her family to “progress” by finding a husband or a career, to become a “normal” woman. She gets by through imitating the women she knows, buying the exact handbags or shoes that they own as a form of camouflage, in order to telegraph her acceptability. What Millie’s story implies but does not show is that these accoutrements aren’t enough – not just to be happy but for that happiness to be co-signed by others – and Keiko learns this soon enough. Unlike Millie, Keiko ultimately decides not to attempt to bridge the gap between being an acceptable worker and an acceptable woman – the balancing act that both novels reveal to be impossible. Instead, she embraces her identity as a “convenience store woman” for better or worse. Despite the differences between Murata and Butler’s novels – not the least of which is their vastly different contexts – both women demonstrate the way that capitalism transforms forming and maintaining an identity or relationships into a luxury.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
However, as other novels in this group show, even when the necessity for this kind of emotional and financial hand-to-mouth existence is removed, the trademark malaise remains. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the unnamed narrator is rich enough that she doesn’t need to work, and indeed gives up her job at a New York art gallery. Flush with money from her dead parents’ estate, she can do anything – but what does she want to do? What is there for her in a world where work is unfulfilling and unnecessary? Surrounded by the grating optimism of millennium New York, she turns instead to a cocktail of prescription drugs to help her sleep for a year, a comatose existence from which she believes she will emerge transformed. It’s a twisted fantasy of millennial burnout: how much can you sleep to store up the energy to last you the rest of your life in this world?
Severance (beware: contains spoilers!)
In Severance, too, the need to work is removed (albeit through a pandemic apocalypse rather than obscene wealth). But instead of fleeing from work or its institutions, Ma’s protagonist Candace cleaves to them, returning to her office building long after New York has been abandoned, ostensibly for an enormous payout that arrives at the moment that money itself has become meaningless. The thing that interests me about Severance though, that I think is not so much missing as unattempted in these other novels, is its sense of a future. At the centre of all of the novels I’ve listed here there is some degree of embattlement with the cycle of production and consumption that govern life under late capitalism, as well as the additional challenges of finding meaning as a woman within this matrix. Each of the women they follow flirts with transformation or goes to some lengths to attain it, but ultimately they are trapped within the airless space inside their own heads, powerless to make any change within an indifferent system. Though Severance shares much of their passivity – Candace’s depression cannot be denied; she walks in a haze of grief throughout the book – this is coupled with something more propulsive. The system may not be overturned but it does self-destruct: the firm Candace works for forces its Chinese workforce to labour under conditions that foster the disease that stops the world. I like this idea of the millennial novel as an apocalyptic one, one in which the protagonist, previously wedded to the structures of work and production, now rejects it for the open field of post-apocalyptic America. Rather than live in a midwestern strip mall, under the rule of a former IT guy called Bob, Candace flees with her unborn child into the wild. What does she flee towards? It’s hard to say. Death, maybe. Motherhood, certainly – and one that can look like virtually anything in this new landscape. I don’t think the novel takes it as its business to know the answer to this question. It merely wants to ask it. If the sad girls of millennial fiction are dejected by the question of “What now?”, Severance asks, “What next?”