AILSA CHANG, HOST:
How many of us have felt, at some point in our work lives, stuck in dead-end jobs, where the work we were doing was unimaginative and soul-sucking, where the purpose was - well, what was the purpose anyway? Writer Halle Butler has had her share of those experiences working as a temp.
HALLE BUTLER: I had one job where I went into a file room. And it was maybe 15 by 15 feet. And it was filled floor to ceiling with old documents that I was supposed to shred. And the whole thing had kind of a feeling of, you know, the beginning of the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale, where you're - she has to spin all this stuff into gold, except I was creating garbage.
CHANG: In her new book "The New Me," Butler explores how paralyzing a terrible job can be. Her story focuses on a 30-year-old woman named Millie, who wanders from temp job to temp job. She's a character you really don't want to see yourself in but you kind of do. And that's where I started when I spoke with Halle Butler earlier.
BUTLER: Sometimes, I refer to her as kind of a gremlin.
BUTLER: She's like this all-knowing gremlin. On the inside, she has this really ornate way of describing the world around her. And she's very judgmental. And she's very hostile and - almost in a Dickensian sense. She really takes a lot of pleasure in describing the faults of others. But it makes her feel bad because she can't have any friends, and she can't, you know, do anything good for herself.
CHANG: On the outside, it's like she fades into the background. She seems like someone who realizes that she's forgettable. I mean...
CHANG: ...When you just meet her in, say, the coffee room or something. And she takes that to heart, but she doesn't do anything to change that.
BUTLER: Yeah. What's she supposed to do? Hi. How are you doing? I'm Millie. I've been thinking about how much I hate you for three months.
CHANG: I mean, there's so many scenes in this book that capture the stupid, pointless things that we swallow to get along in the workplace. Like, Millie just willingly submits herself to all of that. There's this moment where she's being shown how to use a paper clip.
CHANG: Big side on the bottom, little side on the top - and she's like, OK. That makes sense, like, you know, like, very dutifully. What was it that you were trying to depict in that scene?
BUTLER: I imagine her on the outside, being like, oh, yeah, totally. That makes sense.
BUTLER: But then on the inside, being like...
CHANG: Are you kidding me?
BUTLER: Yes, I will do this. Are you kidding? So that tension - and it's a tension that sort of ends up infecting her body, too. Her shoulders are always tight. She's always hunching. And it's these little things that just sort of ratchet her up. So I wanted that tension between the outside and the inside, if that makes sense.
CHANG: Right. On the outside, she seems so compliant, so agreeable, so placid. On the inside, she's furious and sad and frustrated.
BUTLER: Yeah. And I think through - as the book goes on, the inside stuff starts to come out a little bit more. I mean, I think it's left intentionally a little washy. But she does - I mean, her grooming isn't all that great near the end, you know? Like, it does - all the lines kind of start to bleed.
CHANG: Yeah. So she's kind of like just continuing almost in a daze. And then she finds this new surge of energy when the possibility of a promotion arrives. There's this checklist in her head of what a better life would represent. It means new clothes, more vegetables. It means yoga. And then that, ultimately, proves to be this hollow fantasy, doesn't it?
BUTLER: Yeah. I think there's something manic and performative about her enthusiasm for integrating into this Instacart online shopping...
CHANG: For the groceries.
BUTLER: ...For the groceries, yeah.
CHANG: It's like she has this picture in her head of what other people are aspiring to. And she's like, all right. I'll just, like, make a checklist of those things. And...
BUTLER: I'll try it. Maybe it'll help (laughter).
CHANG: Yeah, yeah - you know, like fake it till you make it kind of thing.
BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. But fake it till you make it - but also, I'm thinking now that there's something about the why of the work that's underscored in that act of hers. It's not, good. Maybe I'd have more responsibilities. Maybe my work would become more fulfilling in and of itself. The reason to do work in the world of this book is only so you can have money, so that you can buy...
BUTLER: ...A cardigan.
CHANG: And go to yoga classes.
BUTLER: And go to yoga classes.
CHANG: Right. Work is just a way to get those things that other people seem to want.
CHANG: This book is also or, maybe, really a story about depression and how the simplest things can feel so insurmountable when someone's struggling with depression. I mean, Millie has to psych herself up to clean her apartment, to wash herself, to make herself look nice, to get herself out of the door. It was painful to read.
BUTLER: Yeah, that's what - I wanted it to be painful to read while also being funny at times. This is another thing that I thought was an interesting match about dead-end jobs and depression, and that's this feeling of endlessness and also complete lack of energy. One of the symptoms of depression or one of the feelings of depression is when you're depressed, you remember that you've always been depressed. And you predict that you always will be depressed. And I think the same feelings come out when work isn't going well, too. I will always have this terrible job.
BUTLER: I've always been terrible. I'll always be terrible. I was interested in fusing those two things.
CHANG: I mean, we should point out that this book is really, really funny. And a lot of our conversation has made it sound like the story's incredibly depressing and dour and just a killjoy, but it's not. I was laughing throughout the book, too.
BUTLER: Good. You know, it's what helps the medicine go down or something.
CHANG: So are you writing full time now? Are you a full-time novelist?
BUTLER: That question makes me so nervous.
BUTLER: But I'll answer it. I have been able to take time off from temping because of the book. I just started writing something new. And also, I'm teaching. And so I'm teaching and writing mostly now.
CHANG: Well, that segues nicely into my next question. Has your conception of adulthood and what success should look like changed?
BUTLER: My conception of adulthood maybe but not my ideas about success - I still feel skeptical of ambition.
BUTLER: Something about it seems to miss the point of how we should experience life. It's helpful to have goals to work towards. And it's good to be working on a project that has inherent meaning and to have relationships that have inherent meaning. But if your goal is to get status or achieve something, you might fail. And then you'll feel terrible or you'll always be approaching situations with that in the back of your mind. And it'll really sour your experience and stress you out.
And I just kind of want to be que sera sera about it. But also, I would like to, you know, be an adult. I don't know. I'd like to feel a little more in control of things. But it's - I'm thinking about it.
CHANG: Halle Butler's new book is called "The New Me." Thank you very much for joining us.
BUTLER: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF 80'S CHILD SONG, "I CAN'T WAIT")
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