Perplexingly alienated women of recent American fiction | Daily News


 

Perplexingly alienated women of recent American fiction

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 a 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.”

- The Baffler


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