For the past ten months, I have lived in San Francisco. I work in Silicon Valley. Capitalism swirls around me: Long work weeks, robotic men and women with their faces in the blue glow of their screens on the train, rampant homelessness among the wealth.
If I believe what most people say, I am living in the future. If I believe what most people say, as goes San Francisco, so goes the world. But a bigger question is: If this is the future, will we all stand for it?
When I first moved to San Francisco, I began to read Halle Butler’s The New Me. Although the protagonist of The New Me does not live in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, her life is wrapped up in her work. She is a temp hoping to become permanent in an office that doesn’t understand her. The mundane passing of her days combined with her many failures gives rise to a voice in her head that becomes destructive, and as her life spirals out of control, she spirals alongside it. I thought, frequently, of the people on the train to work, staring deep into their phones, as I read Butler’s portrayal of a woman unraveling within the working world.
Butler’s ability to build out the sharp, sad complexities of office life goes beyond her ability to craft sharp dialogue or razor of a sentence.
The New Me doesn’t offer many platitudes. Instead, it paints a portrait of capitalism as a system that forces us to continuously strive to become something we are not, whether that is a disgruntled temporary employee or a robotic tech worker hiding inside a digital landscape.
Butler’s characters are so relatable because they underscore the promise of employment: If you work hard enough, one day everything will change - even you. The challenge is that if you work long enough, and hard enough, you might be changed in a way you never intended.
I spoke with Butler about The New Me, work, and capitalism via email.
SARAH ROSE ETTER: The New Me is so sharp, so deft, and such a critique of capitalism. From Jillian to The New Me, you seem pretty heavily focused on the systems of work in the world. What draws you to that topic?
HALLE BUTLER: I was working at a gastroenterologist’s office when I wrote Jillian, and I was temping when I wrote The New Me. Work was the problem for me. It seemed like everybody I knew had a job they didn’t like, and that being in the office all day, doing menial work, being treated in a disposable way, was really leaving a psychic mark and stressing everyone out. I was absolutely feeling this way, too. Not being able to use my brain for 30 hours a week was making me feel like a maniac, and all of these feelings of resentment and doom were getting bottled up. Working on these books was ventilation. The need to communicate how bad these work situations, which on a superficial level are “not so bad,” actually feel, felt, very pressing.
SRE: Since so much of your work is both about work and the mental states of women in jobs, can you talk to me a little bit about jobs you’ve had? What’s the best job you’ve ever had and the worst job you’ve ever had?
HB: The best jobs I’ve had have been incredibly social. I loved teaching, and I loved working at a bookstore--both of those jobs involved a lot of talking about things that interested me. And I loved my co-workers at the bookstore--they were the best. I looked forward to going to both of those jobs. I didn’t feel like I was just keeping a chair warm for show.
The worst jobs were the more isolating ones. The temp job I had at the investment bank in Chicago, I felt like I had to pretend to be a receptionist--I was overly aware of being polite, I was never relaxed. This was kind of around Snowden times, and the people there were all laughing and saying that they didn’t care if the government had access to their accounts because they had nothing to hide. And I just smiled and laughed and felt really in hiding. And I definitely had people explain how to turn a computer on--more than once. When I was temping, people always assumed I was in college, and if they found out I was 30, they kind of cooled off, or felt uncomfortable around me, like I had a fundamental flaw. And the work itself was boring--minimum wage, paper shredding, answering phone calls. Just very boring and lonely and time- consuming.
When I switched over to working at the bookstore from temping, it was really relaxing. I think I talked, uh, a lot at that job. It was like getting out of solitary. I’d never made friends on the job before. Oh my god, this sounds very pathetic! But, obviously, a big part of what makes a job good is who you work with.
SRE: One thing I love about your work is that it functions as an indirect criticism of capitalism. We are forced to watch humans (with all of their flaws) try to survive in a system that isn’t designed to ensure everyone succeeds. Do you intend that reading, or is that just me being obsessed with interrogating capitalism as a system?
HB: I definitely intended that reading, but I wasn’t approaching the book as a direct takedown or anything precise (so yes, totally, an indirect critique).
It’s mostly just a scream, trying to get down all of the feelings of being in the career-track system when your eyes are totally open to the fact that the actual work you’re doing is meaningless, and going nowhere. If you’re in a rut (what a phrase!) at work, you can turn to cultivating work-life balance (which I type while rolling my eyes), but usually this involves spending money, which maybe you don’t have, or reaching out to a community, which you also might not have.
I was pretty struck, while I was writing the book, by those articles on toxic friendships, too. They’re so callous, and they treat friends like employees or commodities--like, if your friend is toxic, it’s time to let them go. As if a friend is something you should or could fire if they’re getting in the way of your productivity (or standing in the way of your goal of whatever personal fantasy life). That was a really popular notion in 2016. I was thinking of Millie as a kind of “toxic” person, in some ways. Also, the idea that life is a straight line, and that you have to hit certain marks by certain points, is really unnerving to me. There’s a lot of atmospheric guilt and anxiety, a feeling like you have no value or use in the world, if you’re not hitting these symbolic marks at the right time, and it can be really hard to recover from that. Something about all of this feels like viewing people as products or elements in some kind of vague productivity. And I don’t like it! Haha.
SRE: You’re a master of dark humor - throughout The New Me, we watch this character really struggle and eventually sink into a deep hole of loathing and an inability to function. Did you find it humorous to write -- or is this one of those times where it broke your heart but on the page it came off funny?
HB: Yeah, it’s so weird. Sometimes when people say the book is “hilarious” (specifically that word), I kind of clench up and think “Well, it’s actually not that funny, really,” like maybe they aren’t reading it right (or, worse, I wrote it wrong).
The inverse is true, too. If someone says the book is really sad, I kind of wave my hand and say it’s not a big deal, and it’s supposed to be funny. I did the audiobook myself, and when I was reading the last handful of pages, I was thinking “Oh, shit, this is really, really sad”--almost like it hadn’t occurred to me how sad the ending might be--but then, when I got to the last sentence, I couldn’t stop laughing, because the last two words (on purpose, as a kind of joke to myself) are “the end.” I had to do about ten takes because I kept giggling--it’s not even funny, but it felt like a release to find that stupid joke I’d left for myself. “Theeee end, a book by Halle Butler.”
I feel like the humor in the book is a kind of depression humor. She only lets herself go so far into feeling sorry for herself before pulling it back and mocking herself for being sad. So, maybe it’s intended to be sad and funny in an alternating pattern.
Some scenes were really hard to write, and I felt pretty sad working on them--the lonelier stuff was pretty sad. But then, like, the Tom Jordan stuff, all of the office hostility, any scene where the narrator is angry, rather than vulnerable, was pretty fun and made me laugh while working on it. I like the Jens Lekman idea-- with high emotions, it’s hard to tell how people will react sometimes. Also reminds me of the Bee Gees song “I Started a Joke.”
SRE: There’s this sort of emotional throughline in your books, one where the characters vacillate from being overly confident in their skills to bottoming out into a sad oblivion. What draws you to that paradigm?
HB: Maybe it’s partly avoiding reality. Most of the time things are somewhere in between horrible and wonderful. They’re just “ok”. But that’s a bit drab, so the fantasy of superiority calls, and it’s fun to have a little false confidence for a while, but then, after checking the facts, as they say (but doing it incorrectly), things swing back in the other direction--if I’m not wonderful, I must be awful. I’ll admit this is how I feel a lot of the time, so these things are coming out unconsciously, to a degree.
There’s also the Dunning-Kruger effect, do you know about this? It’s when you’re too dumb to know how dumb you are. I love this.
SRE: AHH! The Dunning-Kruger Effect! What?! Explain this.
HB: Errol Morris wrote about this years ago, it's how I heard about it. There was a bank robber who used to cover his face with lemon juice every time he robbed a bank, because he thought the lemon juice made him invisible to cameras. He'd tested this theory with his own camera, took selfies with the lemon juice on, and he never appeared on the film. But, actually, he was just using his camera wrong! Pointing it in the wrong direction or something. Dunning and Krueger were psychologists studying cases of "illusory superiority" and they used this case.
The Dunning-Kruger effect--I'll just quote from Wikipedia, Dunning describes it as "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent ... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."
I think this is where the “observed” characters, like Jillian and, to a degree, Karen, come from. But then the eye/I character (Megan, Millie) absorbs some of this critique, too. I think Millie is trying to assert that she’s dumb, in certain parts, as a way to show that she’s smart.
There are a few even-keel characters in both books, too. The friend Amanda in Jillian, and the Tupperware/stoned girl Jessica in The New Me I think are reasonable. And then there’s Elena in Jillian, who is fake reasonable--uses her reasonableness as a way to dominate.
I’m interested in how people view themselves, and then how they choose what traits to cultivate and present. It’s slightly unnatural, the way we build ourselves and present ourselves. It’s difficult to actually see yourself, even though most of the time we’re thinking about ourselves. I like how often people get themselves wrong.
SRE: What’s been inspiring you lately, in terms of books, music, art, and film? I’m always so curious what you’re up to over there.
HB: I’ve been loving Rachel Glaser’s poems lately. Her book Hairdo is so good. I re-read Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys and The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing--two of the most intense books I’ve ever read, so good. I read a B-side Sartre essay (the “bad faith” chapter of Being and Nothingness) that was a defense of existentialism, but it was mostly just a rant about waiters (I liked it). Been reading a little Henry James again. The Adrian Piper show at MOMA over the summer was so good it almost made me cry. I thought the Maurice Pialat movie L’Enfance Nue was really good. I’ve been wanting to re-read this book The Madness of Mary Lincoln, because I vaguely remember a detail about her thinking that ghosts were stealing bones from her face at night to make a necklace, and when the necklace was finished, there would be an apocalypse--but there’s a solid 60% chance I just made that up. Right now, I’m listening to John Bellows.
Uuuhhhh, I’m also watching a lot of Dateline and playing a lot of Tetris.