If I was aware that I was graduating into a recession in the late spring of 2008, my diary makes no reference to it. I was also sick, but didn’t know that yet either. I thought I was depressed because I had been reading too much Jean Rhys. It was not until my throat felt like I had swallowed crushed glass that I visited a clinic and was diagnosed with strep throat and glandular fever. Once I found a job at an independent bookshop, I ignored medical advice and drove into work dosed on prescription opioids to leave hoarse whispered messages in the voicemail inboxes of customers who had books to pick up. I moved into a new flat the week after the Lehmann Brothers collapsed, and my local bank was gone within the month. My clever friends – scientists and philosophers by training – went to work for Trader Joe’s, and spent their shifts packing shelves and stacking cardboard boxes. After two years selling books on minimum wage, I tried another tactic: to retreat to academic life for as long as I could. That return to education has a lot to answer for, both in terms of my intellectual life and my student debt.
In retrospect, I recognise myself as part of a generation royally fucked by the Great Recession. I can understand that the ad-hoc impulses and decisions which have characterised much of my life can be woven into a larger narrative. In 2016, according to the New York Times, my peers and I were earning 20% less than our parents at the same age, were less likely to own property, and the milestones of adulthood achieved by our parents (marriage, family) had been as deferred as our student loan repayments. Since then, the effects of the recession have been compounded by the pandemic, structural inequalities, the inflation crisis, the housing shortage, (geo)political instability, and successive expressions of the ongoing climate emergency.
One response to permacrisis is constant vigilance, carefulness, strategic investment, five-year-plans. Another is surrender – to submit to it the way one submits to the inertia of a punishingly hot day. With no relief in the shade, you sit very still, close your eyes and wait for the wind to pick up. ‘Listlessness’ is defined as being ‘characterized by an unwillingness to move, act, or make any exertion’, and the condition is also marked by a ‘languid indifference’ to one’s surroundings or obligations. Like the discourse around millennials in general, listlessness carries with it a sense of ontological passivity, if not moral failure. The Oxford English Dictionary entry includes an early eighteenth-century translation of Theophrastus as warning that ‘[i]ntemperance and sensuality do make men’s minds listless and unactive’. This is not too far from the discourse around millennials as lazy and entitled, prevented from owning property by our frivolous expenditures. Desire is at the root of listlessness, the prefix list being the Anglo Saxon for pleasure, joy, craving and longing. And since a ‘list’ can also be a ‘border’, an ‘enclosure’, and a ‘catalogue’, the etymology seems to propose the necessity of a frame or limit for pleasure. To be listless, then, is to suffer from desires which are uncontained and unbounded.
Listlessness has always existed, as the OED’s historical entries show, both as a state of mind and as an anticipated threat to the productivity and (re)production of the social order. The Victorian novel is full of listless women and alienated clerks. In J.K. Huysmans’s A Vau-l’eau (1882, translated variously as With the Flow or Drifting), Jean Folantin tetchily experiments with minor pleasures. With an undistinguished youth under his belt, Foltantin spends his days as a copying clerk in a governmental office – one of the unnecessary positions David Graeber would come to describe a century later in Bullshit Jobs. Doomed to the knowledge that he’ll never be promoted, Folantin never musters up the Bartleby refrain (‘I would prefer not to’). In the evenings, Folantin vacillates between restaurants and home deliveries from a local patisserie, nights at the theatre and nights by his own hearth, unsatisfactory sexual escapades and the monotony of single life. Each experiment leads to dissatisfaction and disillusionment: an inner ennui reinforced by the gulf between Folantin’s standards and the mediocrity of his penny-pinched reality.
Listlessness clearly infuses Huysmans’s fin de siècle, as it infuses our own (see Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation). But each strain of the condition, each variant, has its own conditions and aggravations. Our particular form of listlessness seems inevitably entangled with the internet, that hall of mirrors which provokes and refracts all desires, but whose unlimited, unbounded, unlisted immensity can induce a form of inertia. This is the current that takes you from one link to another, that sets the YouTube algorithm going: it is, as Patricia Lockwood writes in No One is Talking About This, the ‘place of great melting’.
It’s not that you’re not alive on the internet. It’s that the kind of living one does on the internet entails some cognitive dissonance. As Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror, the internet
‘can feel like an astonishing direct line to reality – click if you want something and it’ll show up at your door two hours later; a series of tweets goes viral after a tragedy and soon there’s a nationwide high school walkout – but it can also feel like a shunt diverting our energy away from action, leaving the real-world sphere to the people who already control it, keeping us busy figuring out the precisely correct way of explaining our lives.’
Thanks to the internet, unlike Folantin, our generation can see – or think we see – countless lives which look fuller and less exploited than our own. We can’t help but understand the gap between what was promised and what has been delivered, but we feel incapable of changing the terms.
Since for many of us the hallmarks of our parents’s plots – marriage, houses, babies – are on ice, one has to come up with new narrative propellers. In the absence of received forms, one’s internet history seems a lot like a plot: a combination of contingency (the emails one does or doesn’t open) and determination (one’s search terms). As in ‘millennial novels’ like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Olivia Sudjic’s Sympthy, novels might start to turn on what you know rather than what you do. After all, knowledge, and the acquiring of it, has a structure: and research generates its own kind of tension. The question of what to do with the knowledge you have is another one entirely. The listless mind is one which defers rather than tries to bring about closure. There is always one more tab to open.
Most of the novels I’ve mentioned so far in this essay are all ones which could fit into what Heven Haile has called the ‘unbearable whiteness’ of the ‘disaffected young women’ discourse, but one shouldn’t forget that the projection of listlessness onto particular bodies has long been racialised. Listlessness was a term which, together with ‘indolent’ and ‘idle’, was used by British travellers to Africa and the Caribbean to describe the people they encountered. Such qualities, wrote the physician Thomas Masterman Winterbottom in 1803 of his trip to Sierra Leone, was a ‘distinguishing feature in the character of Africans, as of all uncivilised nations’. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s conversation with a local administrator is interrupted by the groans of a beaten man coming from the undergrowth, a nightmarish moonlit scene, through which ‘Black figures strolled about listlessly’. Such listlessness is less the result of ‘uncivilised’ nature or ‘idleness’ than a human response appalling and dehumanising conditions. In these contexts, listlessness is an attempt to absent oneself from immediate reality. Such absence is less the result of the warm climate, as colonial writers once fretted, than it is a refusal to be biddable – a decision to increase the friction of one’s labour or attention.
This decision has survived in more recent fiction. In Raven Leilani’s Luster, Edie understands that the path to promotion at a publishing company relies on her performance of exemplarity – a contractual show of pliability she shares with the only other Black employee at her firm. Both women are required to subscribe to ‘the school of Twice as Good for Half as Much’, but this is too tiring and demeaning for Edie to sustain. Unable to muster up any ‘uppercase emotion’, Edie is an example of a non-white character who, as Heven Haile has observed, ‘deserves the grace to take part in unhinged activities and messy antics’. Women of colour are rarely granted a license to participate in messiness, and they shouldn’t need one.
Listlessness, then, is an unholy collaboration between outer conditions and one’s inner state – the conjunction of oppressive conditions or meaningless work and unattainable desires. Despite the discourse around millennials, people born after 1980 aren’t innately feckless. As Tolentino observes, a ‘generation doesn’t start living a definitively mercurial work trajectory for reasons of personality’.
Such trajectories are the subject of Halle Butler’s fiction. Millie, the narrator of her second novel, The New Me, is mired in existential dread. Butler’s characters are unable to calibrate their effect on others, or the effect of the world on themselves. Critique is one way of proving you’re still alive – a way of keeping the numbness of office work, rote social interactions, and the fantasy of American optimism at bay. But such critique also repels any chance of community, and so alienates the characters from potential allies, friends, and lovers as much as themselves.
This is a part of what Neil Vallelly has called the ‘futilitarian’ condition: futility being
‘a form of entrapment in the pursuit of meaningfulness, where we are forced to repeat a series of daily behaviours that ensnare us deeper into the pure logic of competition and individualism that negates any development of common bonds and collective welfare’.
According to Vallely, if classic utilitarianism dismantled the community in the interest of individual happiness, futilitarianism recognises that the current economic order pays homage to the same values without a chance of an individual reaping the rewards. The condition of Homo futilitus, Vallelly argues, is ‘precarity, loneliness, disposibility’. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on personal responsibility diverts uncomfortable questions into that precariousness by driving us ever more inward, seeking the source of our disappointment in our own choices or actions rather than in the economic structures which constrain us.
As Butler’s Millie considers,
‘I should read a book, I should make some friends, I should write some emails, I should go to the movies, I should get some exercise, I should unclench my muscles, I should get a hobby, I should buy a plant, I should call my exes, all of them, and ask them for advice, I should figure out why no one wants to be around me, I should start going to the same bar every night, become a regular, I should volunteer again, I should get a car or a plant or some nice lotion or Whitestrips, start using a laundry service, start taking myself both more and less seriously.’
The ‘shoulds’ here carry the weight of the personal responsibility which, for Vallely, marks the futilitarian condition. Millie’s list-making is listlessness in its manic form: a means of acting without acting. In the futilitarian present, according to Vallely, anger which might be harnessed into communal action is ‘translated’ inward into ‘anxiety’:
‘anxiety that no one is listening; anxiety that one cannot be heard; anxiety that one cannot speak; anxiety that one cannot stop speaking; anxiety that one might be overheard: anxiety that speaking is meaningless; anxiety that one might be misinterpreted; anxiety that meaning is meaningless’.
Anxiety is both an antagonist of and a precondition for writing. Worrying is, after all, a kind of distorted act of imagination. For Olivia Sudjic, the process of publishing her first novel and its aftermath triggered a spiralling anxiety. In a long essay, Exposure, she describes herself going on a residency in Brussels, caught in the listless grey zone between writing and being, both ‘trapped’ in her borrowed flat and ‘lost’ once she left. It is easy to envy Sudjic’s privilege in being able to write full-time in her late twenties after the publication of a single book, but Exposure convinced me that the uncertain act of writing fiction can’t be shored up with unscheduled time and solitude.
Sudjic noted that ‘many of the novels being called millennial are written by women’. This might be because male writers are more likely to be considered ‘universal’, but Sudjic considers that female millennial authors might be more ‘attuned’ to suffering under capitalism. (Counterexamples might include Bryan Washington, Sean Thor Conroe, Brandon Taylor, and Paul Mendez.) She enumerates the protagonists of such novels as
‘overeducated, underpaid, childless, self-loathing, precarious, ironic, anxious and full of rage. They write lists and self-harm to bring some semblance of control. They are very perceptive, but either wilfully delude themselves, or their perceptions do not tally with their actions.’
As Sudjic both perceives (and replicates), lists seem to be a millennial mode: a catalogue to offset telling absences. While it’s tempting to see oneself as standing apart from anything so imprecise as a generation, Sudjic’s description exactly matches the protagonist at the centre of my own novel, History Keeps Me Awake at Night.
The narrator, Margit, is twenty-seven, with sporadic bursts of idiosyncratic ambition, and inconsistent attempts to become a real person. (Like the narrator of Halle Butler’s first novel, Jillian, Margit does secretarial work for a medical office which performs colonoscopies, suggesting that there might something about the procedure – some discomfort, grotesqueness, or proximity to shit – which is particularly emblematic of the current state of alienated labour.) With the idea of vocation always evoked but perpetually out of reach, Margit’s energies are let loose in manifestly unproductive directions. Lists are both a sign of serious intent – in pursuit of her questionable and clumsy investigation into the fate of 43 missing Mexican students – and an admission of what she’ll never know.
List-making is a central feature of Anxiety Journals (e.g. ‘Make a list of the compliments you’ve received from others’), because it soothes unanswered questions with rhetorical extravagance, a decadent expenditure of verbal energy. And perhaps in these economic conditions, abundance of any kind is nothing to sniff at. So why not soothe our listlessness with list-making? Why not indulge in the pleasures of an unrestricted resource?
Leslie Jamison has proposed that the question ‘What’s your pleasure?’ might be just as profound as the question ‘What’s your damage? It suggests,’ she writes, ‘that depictions of intimacy, delight and satisfaction might…offer even richer ways of bringing consciousness to the page’. As Katy Waldman has suggested in a discussion of the fiction of Naoise Dolan and Sally Rooney, critique can be a cop-out. Irony can be just as manufactured as sincerity.
The pleasures of list-making are free, unlike other more unaffordable or inarticulable pleasures. And, for all Jamison’s optimism, pleasure is scarce in precarious times. The list can be a form of hypervigilance: self-care as carefulness, five-year-plans as counter-spells, but it can also be an imagination of expansiveness. When the margins of surviving are narrow, ‘intimacy, delight and satisfaction’ can seem as far on the horizon as an apartment of one’s own. With so much to choose from, and so little to possess, you might as well lie down.
Image © dirkcuys