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Thursday, 12 September 2019

Book review: The New Me, Halle Butler (2019)

This short, complex, and vividly-imagined novel of manners is very funny in a dark way. It’s not meant to describe everyone’s experience of work, but it is a relief to read: there are vanishingly few works of fiction that deal with working life. When you consider how much time ordinary people spend at work, this absence of topical fiction is unaccountable. It’s as though novel writers had never worked a day in their lives!

In my working life I have had a range of jobs, some of which were crap for part of the time, and some of which were good for part of the time. I’ve also had a range of different managers. Some of my managers were good and some were not so good. One was positively toxic and her actions practically led to me having a nervous breakdown. One, on the other hand, changed my life when she encouraged me to write. So: swings and roundabouts. But importantly, for the purposes of this review, I was able to sympathise with the types of situation that Millie, the protagonist of this novel, faces during her working life. She’s a temp and she wants to get permanent work but, more crucially, she wants satisfying work. She is looking, at work and in her personal life, for meaning.

Although the novel is set mainly in Chicago, for some reason I kept thinking, as I read the book, that the author was English. There is something very plain and unremarkable about its prose. In a work of this nature, this kind of quality must be extremely useful as we all know from direct experience (well, most of us, anyway) how plain language can be used, in workplaces, to achieve punishing goals. In fact, it is often the very unremarkableness of the language that Millie, Karen (Millie’s supervisor), and others use that makes the story so compelling. Everything is in what is not said, in the margins between one sentence and the other, one visit to the employee’s desk and another, one “good-morning!” and the next.

The novel is focalised through a number of characters but Millie is the protagonist and the matter of her securing a permanent role with the company she is working at rests as the main question to resolve. The fictional material is often stream-of-consciousness so you get to see how the different characters think at different times, during and after work hours, on different days. It allows the reader to eavesdrop on the thoughts of the characters, and come to conclusions about their suitability as objects deserving (or not) of your esteem.

It also allows you to decide if each character is a reliable witness to the events described. It’s unclear why Millie has been so far unsuccessful in reaching and keeping a permanent role doing something that she likes in a company that provides a supportive work environment, but she is a little bit emotionally unstable (though who is not?) and while she has been to university she’s clearly not using those skills in the scenes depicted in the novel.

With these things in mind, you can see how the mind-numbingly tedious and essentially meaningless tasks that combine to make up Millie’s workday are roughly on-point. Every person who has worked in an entry-level role with any company at all will have done things like those that Millie is forced to do by Karen.

While people above you in your organisation are able to behave callously, as if you have no importance beyond what you can do to increase the firm’s profitability, in this kind of role you are expected to both be companionable and strive for excellence. It is however understood by your colleagues (both those with jobs similar to yours and those who have more ability to use their discretion in performing their roles) that you are on the bottom rung and so can do few favours for anyone.

In this novel the employment agency that places Millie in the design firm’s office adds an extra layer of signification that serves to flesh out the author’s portrait of modern-day work. A further facet Is added to Butler’s jewel by the blandishments produced by sales staff at Lisa Hopper, the design firm Millie is employed with, who seek to project a positive image so that people in the community will decide to come to the company’s showroom and pay for the products and services it retails in. Butler’s use of irony cuts deep.

Toadying to someone with less intelligence and a lower level of education than you is par for the course at many organisations. Your ability to succeed being linked to both your willingness to lie to get what you want and to follow orders slavishly. Any originality is, in many jobs, not only discouraged but ruthlessly nipped in the bud by the people who control aspects of how you spend a third of your life.

Certainly this is true of the kinds of jobs Butler chooses to concern herself with. Such are, furthermore, the types of jobs that will become (by all accounts) more common in aggregate as more and more tasks are automated using computers and software. Fewer, more boring jobs available to do in what will likely be, in the absence of adaptive changes to national fiscal policies, shrinking economies in the developed world.

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