‘The new me’ is undoubtedly one of the most depressing novels I’ve ever read – but in a way that is refreshingly realistic. Films and books do have a habit of making the depressive romantic, exciting, or thrilling. This novel gives us none of that – instead Butler takes on an intimidating task by weaving together a book that explores tedious monotony, a self-defeatist attitude and a steady decline into depression, all while keeping the readers’ attention. If it manages to catch you, it cuts much deeper than most other texts.
Millie is our protagonist – a thirty year old temp who has just taken on a new role with a gallery. In the first chapter, Millie observes a group of stereotypical gallery employees – opinionated, bitchy and preoccupied with looks, focusing on their trousers sagging around the ass: “They don’t notice this on themselves, but notice it on each other.” She sits quite clearly outside of this group, never to enter because of her looks and awkwardness, and we’re told explicitly that she doesn’t want to be part of it anyway. This kind of judgemental attitude continues throughout the book, though it is mentioned at one point that: “If I were a better person, I wouldn’t have to be so judgmental all the time”, suggesting that she is only bringing others down in order to keep her own self-esteem afloat.
On the surface, Millie is a rather unlikable character who starts off being defeatist and haughty, graduating to slovenly, whiney and passive as her mental health declines rapidly. However, the thing which sets this character apart from the others, even in the darkest moments of her depression, is that she is very self-aware. While the characters surrounding her are blinded to their own behavior – ranging from sadistic to power-hungry, from morbidly curious to self-grandiose – Millie is acutely aware of how her declining appearance and behavior is setting her apart from everyone else.
The characters in this novel are almost exclusively female (bar Millie’s father and a neighbour), which presents the perfect petri-dish in which to view not just the human condition – but the shared experience of being a woman, with all its pitfalls, expectations and back-stabbed-ness.
We’re shown clearly that all the women in this book have many esteem issues of their own, showing a shared need to assert power over other women in order to feel in control in their own lives. Other secondary characters are occasionally dipped into, and colleagues like Elodie rehearse conversations with her friends in her head: “She would bring up the fact she was looking for a dog walker […] Please advise, ugh, that was business parlance, so funny. She was such a dork.” As readers we cringe, watching the situation unravel to be a perfect opposite and exposing the characters’ desperate wish to be heard and be admired.
Millie however, doesn’t pretend to be something she’s not. She’s exhausted, past caring and her thoughts are raw enough to make any reader shudder with recognition. Halfway through the novel, her reaction to seeing a new email in her inbox from the recruitment agency shows her intensifying anxiety: “My ears start ringing very low, very slightly, and I play out scenarios ranging from a pay raise and a savings account, to a fully realised depression that lasts for years and years and finally erases me.” She truly struggles to find her way from one day to another, with very little stability to rely on other than her own coping mechanisms: alcohol, cigarettes and the binge-worthy Forensic Files.
By the time Millie goes to see her parents and is offered a little unconditional love and compassion, you feel like crying with relief along with her. With this company, she feels like she could finally: “have things to say, and the opportunity to say them” without feeling judged or ignored, and it allows her the strength to raise her head for a brief moment to try to combat her issues.
Other characters are less empathetic – such as Kim and John, the neighbours. They delight in the idea that Millie is a gross hermit causing a smell in the apartment above – perhaps either a mess who they can try to passive-aggressively shame, or dead. We see again (as we have with many of the other characters) what kind of character Millie plays in other people’s stories. They rumble along on a tide of self-importance, unaware that their landlord thinks of them as dramatists and only agrees to send around an email to make them feel like they have an element of sway.
The real beauty here, on top of the understated plot which still manages to hook, is the intricacies of an unravelling mind and disordered thinking, which Butler manages to capture perfectly. There is a nod to suicidal thinking: “The last thing I remembered doing with a clear head was thinking about pulling the trigger [on some dresses]”, but mostly the thoughts are insidious – small fragments of her life coming loose, bad choices becoming self-destructive habits and a lean towards immediate gratification: “As an exercise, to show myself what it will be like to have more money, I go to the Whole Foods and spend $60 on things that will not last long.” The red flags flash at us from the page like a traffic light as she digs herself into a deeper and deeper hole, trying to delay the inevitable black hole. It is almost comfortingly predictable.
‘The new me’ serves as a reminder that as much as we think we will be a better, more likeable, more confident person once we have *THAT* job, or *THAT* salary, or *THAT* body type, or *THAT* motivation to get up in the morning and make ourselves a spinach, cow testicle and kale smoothie – that we cannot be ‘fixed’ by anything more than an understanding of who we are, and an acceptance of that person and what makes us different and unique. But also that life is hard, and that we should try simply to be kind to each other.
What kind of books have you related to, hard? Can you recommend any other books that are spot on commentaries on the human condition?