‘I was above fear, above desire, above worldly concerns in general. […] I had no past or present. No thoughts. […] I would feel nothing, be a blank slate.’
—Ottessa Mosfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
‘ookkk anoth athter xaanxn at some e oo==ibe, ijay sruffl is going to better e=vetter i know’
—Megan Boyle, Liveblog
Commonly understood, the decade since the 2008 financial crisis has been a period of relentless austerity. This is of course true, but it’s also been a period of great abundance. It has often felt to me as if, for most in the West, it’s been a decade of accelerating oscillation between the twin poles of austerity and abundance.
Huge public debts incurred as a result of bank bailouts were combined with the cynical and unnecessary rhetoric of belt-tightening, sacrifice and hardship. Inevitably, the poorest bore and continue to bear the heaviest burden. The middle classes have also suffered: labour became evermore precarious, education and childcare more expensive. In the US, despite Obama’s flailing attempt at reform, the cost of healthcare skyrocketed.
But at the same time, the financial instruments deployed to stave off financial oblivion generated an atmosphere of abundance. To encourage economic activity, interest rates stayed almost flat, rarely straying above 0%. As a result, capital flowed into the technology sector. In 2008, the largest company in the US was Exxon, and Microsoft was the only technology firm in the top ten. By 2018, the top five places had been taken by technology companies, their market caps double those of the 2008 top five. Apple, Google and Amazon all breached $1trillion valuations, the first companies in history to do so.
Despite the rupture caused by the crash, the neoliberal trade policy pioneered during the Clinton presidency and maintained through the Bush years continued to operate efficiently, with companies like Apple working with Asian partners to drive down the price of their advanced hardware devices.
This, combined with the flood of capital into tech stocks and the dawn of Web 2.0, provided consumers with aesthetic abundance on an unprecedented scale. The material circumstances for most became more difficult, with jobs less secure and public services and welfare support evaporating. But, as you can see in this chart (produced by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute!), media, communication and entertainment have never been cheaper.
Here, the oscillation between austerity and abundance is most clearly illustrated. On one side of the scale is the increasing cost of healthcare, food, education, housing and childcare, bolstered by the stagnation of wages below inflation and government austerity policies. On the other is a flood of aesthetic interference, with images and text flying across social networks at an increasing speed.
There have been numerous signs that this ambivalent dynamic is having a damaging effect beyond the growth of in-work poverty, homelessness and general material insecurity. Mental illness is also reaching epidemic proportions. Studies suggest that despite the introduction of a series of new antidepressants and a wealth of new research, depression and anxiety have spiked. It seems reasonable to infer that the cause of this trend is some combination of diminishing material security and an overload of aesthetic material.
By aesthetic material, I’m referring to a range of visual objects. Our electronic devices and entertainment products are now cheaper and more advanced, and so we can consume visual material at a great pace. We also have new categories of visual material to fill the increased time we spend looking at our devices; memes, social posts, digital advertising, but also emails from our bosses, messages from our friends. The decreased price of software means that it’s never been easier to become a visual producer; images and video is created and reedited, bootlegged and reproduced on a massive scale. If, as per Terry Eagleton, postmodernism reflected a world shrunk by the rapid new speeds of transport and information distribution, we have now surely reached the next stage. The distribution of aesthetic material is immediate, its volume overwhelming.
In order to deal with this issue, there has been a deliberate move to combat its symptoms through a redefinition of our relationship with time. One of the most interesting and widespread developments has been the adoption of corporate-backed, NHS-approved ‘mindfulness’ practices. Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a figure often credited with its rise, ‘means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’ Mindful meditation involves concentrating on how one’s body feels through a process of breath-based consideration of the present moment. It makes sense that such a practice has, encouraged by corporations and health services, become a cornerstone in the treatment of mental health issues caused at their root by material precarity and aesthetic overload. It would be an overstatement to claim that mindfulness has become a defining cultural practice, but it does provide a mechanism for understanding the temporal orientation of the last decade. It is no coincidence that it’s come to the fore now.
Also notable is a rise in the language and practice of ‘self-care’, of which mindfulness is often a component. Self-care involves obeying one’s own will, free from external interference. It has come to mean everything from cancelling plans to eating or drinking what you want to enacting a skincare regimen. We might see these practices as defence mechanisms against the new, transient conditions of whatever comes after postmodernity.
What does fiction have do with all this?
As the oscillation between material austerity and visual abundance accelerates, I think that literature is showing a will to slow down, a tendency it’s possible to explore through the language of mindfulness and self-care.
In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, Frederic Jameson described the defining feature of the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard as itemisation. Knausgaard’s work, Jameson argues, is the result of what happens after
we have abandoned the quest for new languages to describe the stream of the self-same or new psychologies to diagnose its distressingly unoriginal reactions and psychic events. All that is left is to itemise them, to list the items that come by.
So it is not only the objects Karl Ove buys and uses that are itemised here: it is the people, the emotions and feelings, the thoughts, that are itemised as well.
This sounds a lot like mindfulness, which involves noting feelings and thoughts as they occur without judging them: ‘I feel sad but sadness is just a feeling and that’s ok’ rather than ‘I feel sad and I need to work out why and stop myself from feeling this sadness’. As explained in mindfulness literature:
In contrast to most thinking, noting is not discursive. It does not involve analysis or judgment. Rather, we simply give our current experience a one-word label. For example, upon hearing a sound we note ‘hearing’ without thinking further about the sound. Other common mental notes are ‘seeing’, ‘touching’, ‘feeling’, and ‘thinking’.
In itemisation, writing is less a means of working through thoughts and feelings and discerning their meaning, and more of a therapeutic method of transferring inner mental detritus to the physical world. This is the opposite of classic psychoanalysis: rather than dwelling on thoughts and probing for patterns which might help elucidate and alleviate trauma, this mode of writing involves simply organising thoughts and feelings without unravelling their meaning.
Knausgaard’s itemisation or, as I would refer to it, mindfulness, is a key component shared by much recent fiction. Novels such as Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy all treat their characters’ thoughts and feelings as neutral expressions of the present. Their first-person narrators recount information, note details and mental states without judgement. Perhaps such an approach leaves space for the reader to extrapolate meaning—after all, the work of the author can never be neutral; there is always a reason for the inclusion of certain material over the infinite possibilities that are inevitably left out.
Cusk’s work is the best example of this impulse towards mindfulness. Her narrator is barely a narrator at all; she absorbs other people’s stories and seemingly recounts them verbatim, barely commenting on their content. Material is communicated to the reader, but without external affective or interpretive context from narrator or author.
Such an approach can be frustrating, as is the case in the sections of Cusk’s novels that deal more directly with political questions. In one such section, a Spanish man on a beach refers to how stupid the English tourists and emigrants are, how they refuse to learn the language and behave atrociously. The narrator does not comment, leaving the words to hang in the air, but one can easily guess the perspective of Cusk and many of her readers at the time of Brexit: the English working class are uneducated fools, ruining the cosmopolitan dream of continent’s deserving elites (although no doubt they would not phrase it in this way). One might argue that there is nothing wrong with making such a point. This is true, but without the narrator offering affirmative or conflicting comment it appears as an objective fact. After all, we’re not given the perspective of a Syrian migrant or out-of-work Greek doctor, both of whom might have suffered as a result of the EU’s actions, despite the fact that some of the trilogy is set in Athens.
In the same sense that a photograph considered without context might give an easy appearance of an individual moment, ignoring the depth and ambivalence of real life, the narrator stands apart from potentially painful, complicating or traumatic repercussions and avoids the difficulty of complexity.
If, as Jameson suggests, the itemising impulses of autofiction in the work of Knausgaard, Cusk, Lerner and Heti are a detached ‘noting’, the goal is not to interpret and derive meaning in the sense of analysis but to experience the material at a remove, to become familiar with it without trauma. It’s a therapeutic method of temporal redefinition.
At a time when visual material combines with material precarity to trigger anxiety, literature becomes a space for information to be digested without urgency. To quote from the London Review of Books’ new advertising campaign: ‘As politics speeds up, slow down.’ The function of literature in this environment is to provide a temporal lens through which the world can be considered at remove, more slowly, away from the painful and troubling conditions of actual life. I don’t doubt that this might make one feel better, but removing oneself from politics is unlikely to alleviate the conditions that have led to such behaviour being necessary.
In Megan Boyle’s recent novel Liveblog, we can see a more extreme and direct example of this tendency. The 800-page novel documents a year of Boyle’s life in which she updated her blog a few times each day, writing down as many of her thoughts and feelings as possible. In mindfulness, this process would be called noting; for Boyle, it’s literature. She has a similarly therapeutic goal:
**this is not going to be interesting** ** i am not going to try to make this sound interesting or try to make you like me or think about if you are reading this or enjoying reading this, it’s just going to be what it is: a functional thing that will hopefully help me feel more like improving myself**
By noting down thoughts and feelings and not judging herself for having them, Boyle expects that they will somehow arrange themselves in a way that will enable her to digest them more readily, and eventually allow her to reassemble them into a form that she’s more comfortable with.
The result is a shift in temporal perspective. By its nature, Liveblog cannot dwell on the past or even gesture towards a possible future. The narrator must constantly inhabit the present. We can again see a tendency towards self-care manifest; Boyle’s narrator (the gap between the narrator and Boyle is extremely thin) embodies the most self-driven aspect of self-care in her non-compromising disclaimer. Her novel is not for the reader, it’s part of her own care and self-improvement regimen.
The results are mixed. At its best, Liveblog captures the narrator’s jarring inner monologue, which reflects the uncomfortable state of consciousness in the age of abundance and austerity. At its worst, it’s a self-indulgent mess. Often, such as in a section in which she quaffs Xanax and falls asleep in the bath while still holding her Macbook, it’s both:
12:22AM: bathwater is running. i’m just going ot do this until forever. ate half of some kind of pill, 1 mg Xanax ithink. ate other one […]
ookkk anoth athter xaanxn at some e oo==ibe, ijay sruffl is going to better e=vetter i know
1:12AM: woke in mostly empty bathtub. very cold. drain wouldn’t close so i just sat on it and refilled tub with hot water. when i woke felt obsessed with finding candy i had been eating but i guess i ate it all. flopped around trying to always be covered in hot water, thinking ‘sexy seal’ and ‘sprinkle princess’ and pictured someone tossing me a fish and this is what would get me into the maxim top 100 hottest women or whatever. because enough seals voted me in.
Dropping a Macbook in the bath because you’ve taken Xanax and fallen asleep is illustrative of the writing of self-care: the act of writing (symbolised by the Macbook) is literally submerged by the act of care (the drugs/bathwater). Despite a care-overload, the documentation continues.
Boyle takes drugs throughout the novel. Sometimes recreationally, at other times remedially. The line is frequently blurred, and we might see intoxication as another method of self-care. Xanax makes a frequent appearance, as do other downers. The effect these substances share in the novel is to further remove Boyle from reflections on the past or future; they place her unshakeably in the present, numbing her relationship with the consistent, unstoppable passage of time.
It isn’t difficult to see why this type of fiction has gained traction in a period of precarity and overload. The tendency towards self-indulgence functions as a mechanism of protection and stability, insulation against the painful past and an uncertain future. At a time when social media and the non-stop bombardment of aesthetic material triggers anxiety of a temporal nature, Boyle responds in kind, but places herself at the centre of the narrative, a position in which she is able to define her temporal location. By documenting the present and occupying it as much as possible, she hopes to achieve control at a time when control is hard to come by.
Another novel offers a further exaggerated portrayal of self-care. Ottessa Mosfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation transports the Victorian sanatorium to pre-9/11 New York, as its unnamed protagonist doses herself with prescription drugs with the eventual goal of becoming unconscious for months at a time. In the novel’s final section, she invites an artist to enable her behaviour, instructing him to visit her apartment during the her three-day periods of drug-induced sleep and leave her a pizza and other supplies, which she consumes upon waking before taking another dose and returning to unconsciousness.
Why would anyone want to do this? The protagonist’s parents have recently died, so there’s an implicit trauma underlying her behaviour. Her attempt to medicate herself against the pain of the past while insulating herself from the possibilities of the future is an extended and extreme version of self-care, radicalising the premise. Taking a bath, cancelling one’s plans, ordering food, taking a year-long period of drug-induced convalescence: these things are versions of the same impulse.
The brilliance of Mosfegh’s novel comes in her bold subversion of the moral unfolding we might expect. The protagonist is, trauma-effected as she might be, not a good person. She hates Reva, her annoying and flawed girl-boss-type best friend who is nonetheless one of the few characters who cares for her (although the extent to which this is just a symptom of codependency is up for debate). Her decision to numb herself in her Manhattan apartment seems the morally-degenerate copout of a privileged brat. By rights, such a choice should end in failure and misery. But in fact, her warped version of self-care pays dividends.
The drugs and her relationship with Reva allow her to practice a seemingly pure version of mindfulness which, in the culmination of the novel, brings her out of her convalescence and enables her to resume her life:
Reva was like the pills I took. They turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away. And that was exactly what I wanted—my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade and leave me in the dark again.
Like mindful meditation, her relationship with Reva and the drugs allow her to experience a temporal purity free of past and future and, therefore, pain:
Reva was a magnet for my angst. She sucked it right out of me. I was a Zen Buddhist monk when she was around. I was above fear, above desire, above worldly concerns in general. I could live in the now in her company. I had no past or present. No thoughts. I was too evolved for all her jibber-jabber. And too cool. Reva could get angry, impassioned, depressed, ecstatic. I wouldn’t. I refused to. I would feel nothing, be a blank slate.
Reva gets a job working in the World Trade Center, and subsequently jumps to her death on 9/11. After awaking from her benzo slumber, the narrator feels alive again, ditches the drugs and experiences a healing calm by replaying a VHS tape of Reva’s fall from the North Tower over and over. Her own new dawn is reflected in the apparent appearance of Reva before her death: ‘There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.’
It’s possible to read the novel’s end in multiple ways. It could be a brilliant sick parody of Millenial onanism and selfishness (likely); a simultaneously ironic and sincere subversion of rise-and-grind New York capitalism (a good reading); or a wry, benefit-of-hindsight comment on the post-9/11 moment (a reach). It doesn’t really matter.
Personally, when I reached the book’s denouement, it did feel like the end of something larger. It was extremely satisfying to witness a character embody so completely the ideology of self-care, to display its ability to heal and insulate while at the same time withdrawing an individual’s capacity to care for others. My argument here is not a reproach to those whom self-care has helped—it’s an effective buffer against the twin assaults of material austerity and aesthetic abundance, just as it helps Mosfegh’s narrator overcome her grief at the loss of her parents. But although it can be a valuable tool, it’s also a symptom of the specific conditions of the last decade and thus incompatible with a wider programme of socially-focused care that might deal with the issue at its root.
There can be no doubt that the literature of the late 2010s will continue to seek the same itemised remove from its own events and place the self above the collective. But perhaps, just as in politics, economics, environmentalism and everywhere else we’re beginning to see the exhaustion of such an approach, we might see fiction explore once again what it means to live among others, to extend care beyond oneself.