Wreck or be Wrecked: Capitalism and the Ubiquitous Appeal of Millennial Fiction
by Iulia Ivana
We are the avocado toast generation, the internet proclaims. We are spoiled, rootless, and use too much irony as a way of diluting our existential anxiety. Moreover, according to Bret Easton Ellis, the so-called “bad boy” of 1980s American literature, we have not managed to produce a single great novel. Conversely, the type of literature created by millennials and Gen-Z writers highlights passively subversive, selfish, self-destructive or sex-obsessed (female) characters that seem to continuously be on the brink of mental breakdown—attributes that stand in stark contrast to the male-dominated, agency-centered novels that often focus on the individual pursuit of one’s desires and needs which characterized the Holden Caulfield-s, Jay Gatsby-s, or Stephen Dedalus-es of the previous centuries.
The media is quick to designate writers of the contemporary moment as either too much, or not enough. Articles describing Sally Rooney as “the voice of her generation,” poignantly capturing the “Instagram age,” and working towards the dismantling of societal taboos—through her portrayal of unlikeable, deeply flawed characters and their frankness about mental health issues—are abundant, but so are those deeming her books as “simple-minded” and having “no literary ambition.” Nonetheless, the aspects which readers and critics dismiss as being trivial and politically useless in contemporary literature written by women function as spaces for interrogation of our current cultural moment, which continues to prioritize agency and a novelistic demand for a certain kind of resolution. Such characteristics are patently absent in many contemporary millennial and Gen-Z novels, which, in turn, are seen as an expansion of the form: they are generally structured around failure, numbness, and complete detachment from one’s surroundings.
These novels are interested in an experience of numbness that is not primarily pathological, but rather a symptom of life under oppressive systems, propelled by an increased sensitivity to power dynamics. They do not aim to disclose a general condition of contemporary womanhood, but rather to show us what capitalism feels like on an individual scale, where the only option is alternating between self-loathing and doing what you need to survive—to wreck, or be wrecked.
“I could never work for a company like that,” somebody tells me in a performatively ethical fashion as I announce my newly acquired internship. “They’re awful and what they’re doing is morally wrong,” this person points out feverishly, with that theatrical affect that only privileged people whose most radical endeavor in life is quitting plastic—once and for all!—are able to pull off.
Retrospectively, it was precisely this conversation that got me thinking about the dichotomy of choice that burdens the current generation; the crushing awareness that, as Jia Tolentino cleverly points out in her collection of essays, the only options of this era are to either morally compromise yourself in order to be functional, or be destroyed by a system that could easily do without you. This realization has also led to a change in the way in which the contemporary generation consumes—and produces—culture. From the conspicuous popularity of the Instapoetry phenomenon that is both visually appealing and peculiarly short—and therefore easily accessible to any type of reader—to the growing success of the novel of passivity, featuring protagonists carefully delineated by reservations of judgment and deference to fate, contemporary literature differs substantially from the Great Male Novels of the previous centuries—and I would thank a capitalized god for that were I not agnostic.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a nameless protagonist plunges into a year-long pharmaceutically-induced coma to escape her otherwise similarly numb existence. “It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me,” Moshfegh’s narrator declares. “Subways workers went on strike. A hurricane came and went. It didn’t matter. Extraterrestrials could have invaded, locusts could have swarmed, and I would have noted it, but I wouldn’t have worried.” What Moshfegh’s narrator does here—as countless other critics have observed—is only a slight exaggeration of what the rest of us do anyway, albeit in a more restrained, cautious manner: drag ourselves to and from work, write to-do lists that we never get to, only to bring some semblance of control, pretend to enjoy our flexible, temporary jobs while trying to numb the oppressive realization that we are living in a perpetual crushing crisis, on a death spiral planet led by a handful of egocentric clowns.
A similar confuscating feeling of numbness delineates both of Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan’s work, whose protagonists have been called toxic, narcissistic, and desperate to undercut themselves before the reader can. Both writers use Marxist erotica and criticize capitalism in a way that propels the plot forward, but their performance of inequality awareness does not engage any agency towards dismantling the system.
In an article for Los Angeles Times, Lynn Steger Strong argues that the idea of agency has undergone a complete shift in contemporary fiction written by women. As she puts it,
|A writer, a subject — who has power and control, and makes choices — is often writing about a woman reduced to being an object (a body sometimes but mainly in the sense of being acted upon). Someone who, having less power and control than those who’ve occupied so much of the fiction that came before, has a wholly different relationship to action than her predecessors did.|
In the Moshfeghian model, the narrator writes off an entire year of her life to escape the pulsing city and the farcical optimism of the pre-9/11 society, as depicted in the character of Reva, the protagonist’s only friend whom she mocks continuously for her obsession with conformity and fitting in. Conversely, Moshfegh’s narrator is scornful of anything that requires even minimal effort towards self-betterment, eschewing the modern capitalist notion that the only way to live a decent life is by paving our own way meritocratically.
In Sally Rooney’s prose, characters are similarly largely defined by their passivity and numbness to the external world despite their political ambitions, which remain largely theoretical and performative. Both Conversations with Friends and Normal People portray female protagonists—Frances and Marianne—that are products of their age, growing up with the rise of the internet in a cratering economy. They are both overeducated, underpaid, and drenched in self-loathing; additionally, both dignify their everyday struggles with dark humor and reflections on their own privilege.
Despite being “cool-headed” and “observant,” as the back cover of Conversations with Friends portrays her, Frances navigates her early adulthood through unpaid internships and minimum wage jobs that are impossible to sustain anyone who does not have the privilege of being born into generational wealth. She likes to describe herself as “broke,” making sure to use a tone of voice that she calculates to be flippant, but there are countless moments in the novel where she has so little money that she cannot feed herself. Subscribing to similar millennial tropes of self-hatred and nearly chronic self-scrutinizing obsessions, Marianne, one of the protagonists of Normal People, is a formidable character. Her categorical self-assuredness and unequivocal detachment from her social surroundings grant Marianne a unique perspective on the world: during classes, she is not afraid to tell her professors things such as “[d]on’t delude yourself, I have nothing to learn from you.” Coming from a particularly wealthy background and a highly abusive family, she calls herself “a fundamentally cold, unfeeling person,” who is consequently unfit to be loved.
As Lucinda Rosenfeld points out in an article for The New York Times, the motives that Rooney ascribes to her female characters range from the ravages of late capitalism (Frances) to familial physical abuse and being a social outcast (Marianne). Nonetheless, much of the critical landscape has simplistically focused on presenting these books as subversive yet perfunctory, depicting a general condition of millennial womanhood that is structured around failure, absences, and lacks. But passivity, after all, can induce boredom and vexation, resulting in unsatisfactory reading experiences due to the lack of answers or solutions to the issues explored in the narrative. This lack of agency and action, coupled with the presumed failure to produce the voice-of-a-generation novel, successors of The Catcher in the Rye and The Sun Also Rises and On The Road, is precisely what prompts the former enfant terrible of 80s literature, Bret Easton Ellis, to publicly bash millennials as “Generation Wuss,” attacking what he regards as the narcissism of the young; but, one might wonder, what does the idea that novels by straight white men about straight white men speak for entire generations in a one-size-fits-all fashion underline if not utter and absolute narcissism?
In contrast to their media reception, the common aim of millennial and Gen-Z novels is to push against labels and the idea that they have to be representative of an entire generation of people. That being said, any writer is a product of their age, unavoidably shaped by the broader structures and power dynamics that they are part of. As Jia Tolentino points out, a generation does not simply start living a rootless life for reasons of personality: “It’s just easier (…) to think millennials float from gig to gig because we’re shiftless or spoiled or in love with the ‘hustle’ than to consider the fact that the labor market (…) is punitively unstable and growing more so every day.” It’s easier to blame millennials for refusing to grow up and start a family instead of realizing, as Sian Cain argues in an article for The Guardian, that the reasons behind filling one’s house with plants might simply “fulfill a desire to care for something living in the face of restrictive rental agreements and incomes that suit neither pets or babies.”
The fact that contemporary literature written by women acknowledges how one’s wants and needs are completely redundant in a world shaped by capitalism is not depressing—but revelatory. This cognizance is precisely what makes these novels feel true to a certain demographic of people who have failed to see themselves in the canonical male writings of previous centuries, and why the current need for representation is so paramount.
That we are living in a ruthless political and economic system that makes us feel like outsiders even to ourselves is undeniable; and while complete Moshfeghian detachment is not an option for most of us still caught in the rat race for minimal financial stability and social acceptance, plunging ourselves in fiction that reckons with the simultaneity of daily life and global crisis surely has an irrefutable appeal.
Iulia Ivana is a master’s graduate of English literature and publishing from Utrecht University. She works as an editor for FRAME, Journal of Literary Studies and as a freelance writer in the publishing industry, and her current research explores the intersection between gender and politics in contemporary fiction. She lives in the Netherlands, surrounded by plants and books. You can read more of Iulia’s work on her literary blog.
Photo by Iulia Ivana
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