Where Do We Go From Nowhere?
Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life
by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle
Published August 2021
Sad girls! My god, are we sad. We’ve been sad forever, though there’s a boomtime for everything: five years ago, you couldn’t throw a lit cigarette without hitting a sad girl, shuffling up to the microphone to share some choice misery, staring banefully at the floor, aiming for abjection and landing in dejection, extra points for oblique references to pop culture. While we are now in agreement that there were problems with the peak-traumatic-experience-to-confessional-literature pipeline, it was the artlessness of the delivery that really wore you down. I believe that if you’re going to make art about generic forms of unhappiness you should be charismatic about it; if you’re going to drag the audience through a thousand miles of broken glass, drag them with conviction. As a friend of mine once said, Jesus, at least look me in the eye while you fuck me in the afternoon.
Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life begins with the orderless time of unemployment. ‘Everyone is getting married,’ the book opens. ‘I’m really depressed, maybe I should have a baby. I already feel like a mother though because I’ve dated a lot of immature people.’ The nameless protagonist is chronically ill, chronically underemployed, depressed, and unlucky in love. She is a writer, the kind who listlessly itemises her days: ‘From the discomfort of my own home I buy dresses, look up recipes, do online surveys.’ Peripheral figures – mother, sister, housemate – attempt to help her, but positive change is impossible when you have nothing to look forward to, and hers is a relentless negativity. ‘It’s hard to be excited when I don’t believe in the future,’ the protagonist says. ‘I was about to enjoy this cereal but then I remembered I’m not allowed to enjoy anything because I don’t have a job.’ Disinterest, or indifference to pleasure, is the organising principle. ‘Hopelessness’ doesn’t really do it justice; the emotional range is flatline boredom, cold hatred, dispassionate suicidality. ‘I keep thinking “please kill me” and “back to basics.”’
Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle is known primarily for her poetry, and much of Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life was previously published or presented as such. Her first book, Autobiography of a Marguerite, has been described as a ‘book-length poem,’ and ‘innovative autobiography.’ Nostalgia is similarly hybrid, or resistant to classification, with most publications opting for ‘novella,’ proof, as if it were needed, that nobody knows what a novella is. Butcher-McGunnigle has long had a special place in my heart for making the funniest abortion joke I’ve ever heard, which I was pleased to find features in Nostalgia. ‘I’m angry because I’m so cold and so ugly. I’m bored as soon as I wake up. It was good when I was pregnant because I had a goal and a structure to my life. The end goal was killing the baby but at least I had something tangible to focus on.’ When I first heard this line delivered it gave me a hernia. The man next to me started crying. The effect does not fully translate on the page. Butcher-McGunnigle’s delivery is beyond deadpan, a kind of virtuosic dispassion that lets her luxuriate in the failures of the human spirit with a bathos that would, on anyone less stylish, be really annoying. Her performance subverts the usual trope of comedy dressing up sincere emotion in ironic self-awareness; it’s actually hard to tell if she’s joking. It always seems possible that you’re laughing at a genuine confessional performance, which makes it funnier.
Nostalgia arranges these prose-poems into a continuous narrative. The protagonist is styled as a subspecies of the Sad Girl, the Sour Young Woman: the shadow twin of the now-outré manic pixie dream girl, she’s a kind of depressive goblin nightmare bitch, desirous of but repulsed by intimacy, disenchanted, disaffected, and incapable of positive change, as seen in Halle Butler’s The New Me (2019) and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2020). Besides this affinity with more traditional novels, Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life bears the marks of alt-lit: self-deprecation, flat tone, bleak candour, fragmented structure, reported speech from emails, texts, and private messages, and, crucially, the first-person writer-character. Tao Lin’s Taipei (2013) and Darcie Wilder’s literally show me a healthy person (2017) come to mind. Like these titles, Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life has been categorised as ‘fiction’, while drawing from materials previously identified by the writer as close to life.
Stretching these deadened interior streams-of-hopelessness into a ‘novella-in-fragments,’ a kind of prose-poem cycle without much reward in the way of lyricism, intersubjectivity, or the traditional satisfactions of realist fiction (‘plot’) sounds like a recipe for punishment. But Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life looks you in the eye, so to speak. The protagonist is not the wilful agent of her own destruction – there is nothing of the feminine-abjection-as-radical-praxis, self-appointed revolutionary fuck-up. The problems she identifies are structural – inadequate housing, medical care, support networks, all exacerbated by and exacerbating her unemployment – and though her negativity feels in turn like a disposition and a choice, it also reads as an organic response to these conditions and so a form of social critique.
This sets Nostalgia apart from the neurosis of most autofiction, especially of the ‘very online’ variety: it’s a book that does not attempt to contain its own reception or anticipate its reader’s reproach. We aren’t asked to pity the protagonist, or to see virtue in her unhappiness. We aren’t asked to find her funny, either, although we do. The jokes, such as they are, are so bleak they seemed unconcerned with our pleasure. This is where Butcher-McGunnigle’s practice as a poet shows: in the book’s willingness to both permit the identification of the narrator with the speaker, and its lack of interest in justifying, or dignifying, itself. At a job trial, the protagonist is told ‘We’re not really sure what you’re looking for’ – an inversion of the traditional ‘You’re not what we’re looking for’ – tempting the reader to consider whether the central problem is actually the protagonist’s failure to want anything at all.
Though unemployment is its own kind of routinised life, a drudgery of empty time, actually getting a job only makes the protagonist more depressed. Unalienated labour can’t solve her problems either, since romance has supplanted the desire for vocation. Her therapist tells her if she can ‘just channel my pain into art then I’ll be ok,’ but at no point in Nostalgia do we get the sense that the protagonist is ‘ok’, or that her ‘documentation’ of her days is a fulfilling form of self-expression. ‘I don’t make art anymore, I just have disappointing relationships,’ she says. This disappointment is a rare glimmer of optimistic fantasy – after all, to be disappointed you must have wanted something in the first place. Between claims such as ‘I don’t care about pleasure’ and ‘I’m starved for validation’ it’s clear that romantic attachment is an end in itself, as distinct from more concrete goals, such as killing the baby. ‘More than a job I just want someone to love me so much that they write an entire book about me,’ she says, with expert metatextual irony: not only is Nostalgia a tunnel-visioned portrait of alienated subjectivity, but the ex-boyfriends who do feature are all, to a man, assholes. ‘I hope one day you’re healthy enough to dig a grave,’ one says. Another sends her a picture of him wearing an adult diaper. All sexuality is vaguely ridiculous, making the moments of romantic idealism a kind of compounded joke.
You’d expect, from the title, an undercurrent of loss, some old relationship that once brought meaning, but there is little wistfulness or sentimentality, no retrojected vision of the good life. In keeping with alt-lit convention, the protagonist is lodged in homogenous time, occasionally interrupted by an unsavoury recollection, such as watching an old sex tape. But these ‘nostalgias’ have the quality of one-liners rather than reveries, so that the narrative feels less episodic than enjambed. There are shades here of heteropessimism, a critical detachment from desire; or a self-aware manifestation of what Lauren Berlant called cruel optimism, an overinvestment in a fantasy which gives with one hand and takes with the other, ‘an enabling object that is also disabling’. This is what makes it possible to desire connection while being repulsed by the reality of people, so ‘nostalgia’ here names not the mystification of the past as a form of escapism, but a deferral of desire from objects in reality to desire itself:
I look the most attractive around 3 a.m. I think. I want people to see me at this hour but also I don’t like people staying in my bed. I don’t like being touched while I’m sleeping and I don’t like anyone facing me while they sleep. I don’t care if they are unconscious and their eyes are closed, if they are facing me then I can’t relax.
If all desire is failed desire anyway, then desire is a form of relentless negativity, wanting to want and finding yourself wanting. This is the kind of arrested position beloved of psychoanalytic theorists and people who make niche philosophy memes, which is to say it is anathema to everyone who has regular sex with a loving partner, but there might be something to it. Knocking around literary theory is the idea that as the consoling narratives which once organised our lives – fixed, long-term occupation and the economic unit of the nuclear family – dissolve in the latrine of the twenty-first century, so too does our individual sense of ‘protagonicity’. We don’t know what we’re for. The optimisms our identities were founded upon have fallen away, leaving us to wander shiftless in the wreck of our adulthoods like glitching Sims, wishing we could just want something, yet finding ourselves incapable of fastening our desires to the mutilated world. This maps onto discourse about the millennial disposition, its alleged tendency towards resignation, blame, recrimination, and facile self-regard – although the possibility that this isn’t a ‘generational’ experience so much as the arrogation of specifically middle class entitlements is sometimes left out of the analysis. You can see the glimmers of this in Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life:
My mother already owned a house by the time she was my age. My father had three degrees and had been married twice. I feel productive changing a photo on my dating profile.
This loss of narrative meaning, which we might call ‘futurity’, provides another valence to the ‘nostalgia’ of the title – for a way of wanting in the world that no longer feels possible.
Who better to register such losses than a writer? Or, rather, once you account for the overlap of people who traffic in narrative meaning and people who give a shit about it, who’s left? This may be why autofiction so often feels like a confederacy of losers; so much self-reflexive commentary on the dearth of narrative meaning, the call coming from inside the house, writers writing writers out of narrative purpose. But Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life doesn’t read like a narcissistic exercise in self-mythology nor like an apologia for a lack of authentic inspiration dressed up in shopworn existentialism nor like the rambling notes app of a hack (see: discourse on Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi). It’s full of moments that, to me, are perfect:
Last week I had sex with an orphan. But we fell out before I could give him his birthday gift. A candle melted down to make another candle. He was angry I left his house because I felt anxious. ‘But I feel pretty terrible too,’ he said. ‘Can you recommend me some mainstream narrative fiction.’ He didn’t understand why I was going to the hospital to see my grandmother when I already had plans. He thought it was too much for people to expect you to help them.
And ‘perfect’ is the word I want to use, with the trace meaning of ‘complete’ – consummately whole, exactly right, every element in glowering harmony, as densely fixed as a neutron star (e.g. ‘I finally get ringworm.’) I suspect, too, that Nostalgia’s ultimate classification as ‘fiction’ had to do with the difficulty of marketing hybrid work, or the difficulty of fitting ‘little scenes in my mind with a certain mood’ on the spine. Even supposing Nostalgia is ‘really’ poetry and not autofiction, it has as little lyric suspension as it does narrative drive. It resembles stand-up more than anything, fixed as it is in an airless present – ‘Some people like to have fun but that’s not for me. I see my ex has abandoned his blog’. It hinges on the ‘surprise’ of the non-sequitur in the shit-posting sense; and though it takes place in linear time, this surprise never progresses the action nor calls back to a previous moment, so that surprise itself becomes stultifying, a compulsory novelty. Even this lack is so deftly executed it becomes a feature – how does she do it, paint this glassy boredom to look like a sharp edge?
My problem is this: a spectre is haunting contemporary literature. Everywhere the speaker of the novel and the figure of its writer converge. We need a word for this phenomenon that doesn’t double as a generic classification; something more than Künstlerroman, something less than memoir; an aesthetic category that abides across a loosely interconnected Anglophone literary forms and scenes. This autofictional posture is shared by so many writers, in the inception or reception of their work, that it’s hard to know where to stop: the big guns, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Jenny Ofill; the more novelistic recent work of Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, Christine Smallwood, Marlowe Granados; the alt-lit experimentalists noted above, alongside Melissa Broder, Meghan Boyle, Marie Calloway, Sean Thor Conroe, Nico Walker; in Australia, across forms and in various ways, Luke Carman, Oliver Mol, Ellena Savage, Madeleine Watts, Ronnie Scott… A reader of contemporary literature, especially of the kind photographed on a sun lounger with an it-girl, might be forgiven for thinking that the only real characters are writers, engaged in the purest form of self-fashioning as self-expression, streamlining subject formation and art-making into a single process, a process which is also an emptying out of symbolic potential, since a commodity doesn’t have to mean anything except that it is a commodity. What the writer-character, the posture of autofictionality, really promises, is another kind of relentless negativity: a ceaseless fabrication that posits nothing but itself.
Calling Nostalgia ‘fiction’ means we are formally required to regard its writer-protagonist as a textual construction; we must do the dance, acknowledging the text’s relationship to life, resisting the rube’s urge to read it literally, since nobody wants to admit they’re triggered by the avant-garde, everybody wants to be the guy smirking and holding a cigarette, saying actually I can suspend my cognitive defences vis-à-vis clothing to appreciate the metacommentary at the heart of the emperor’s project… But the stylistic features of these autofictive literatures – restricted affect, reflexivity, a narrowed character field, interior monologue without flickers of pre- or unconscious life – tend away from, specifically, the development of character, because why develop a character when they’re you? Instead, something is being relayed – ‘how it felt to me’ – and without the coaxings of a fictional framework, the reader needs to believe autofiction is true to feel what it asks us to feel. Identification becomes the primary aperture for evaluation, since autofiction is interiority without characterization; narration is not another level of textual invention but a mediation of perspective. No wonder it’s so popular in our current moment, with our emphasis on experiential authority, our squeamishness about metanarratives and grand abstractions. The central question for the reader becomes: am I criticising an artwork or a life? And this question provides a screen, a double defence, for the writing: both the dignity of invention and the implied moral seriousness of lived experience.
No matter how boring our lives are, we narrate the world around us according to our own protagonicity (see ‘main character syndrome’) which disposes us to a kind of self-fetishism. But what we seek from fictional characters, as Catherine Gallagher argues, ‘are not surrogate selves but the contradictory sensations of not being a character.’ To make yourself a character is to always justify your own existence according to prefigured narratives: occupation, family formation, reproductive futurity. Often, as Berlant points out, these optimistic fantasies result in a continual re-attachment to conceptions of the good life that do us harm. A fictional character gives us a break from our own immanence, the automatic reification of ourselves to ourselves, and this reprieve might, maybe, provide us with the opportunity to revise these attachments.
I won’t go so far as to say this is a revolutionary property of fiction – you have to hope the stakes aren’t that high, or we literary cranks will find each other in hell – but there is something worrying about fictionality being supplanted in this way, so that any description of a social totality outside its expression as individual experience becomes impossible. Another way to say this is that the autofictional character cannot be allegorised. The nameless protagonist of Nostalgia herself is neither a representation of a social type nor a symbol, and by extension, the things that happen to her cannot be representative, nor symbolic; only resonant. Identify or perish.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the things Nostalgia does brilliantly is underscore, formally, how limiting it is to be sick and depressed, how automatically thwarted it is to try to transform this into art or translate it into metaphor. Pain has an element of blank; we can do nothing with it; and this is an antidote to the therapeutic insistence that we make meaning out of our wounds. More generally, this autofictional posture frees fiction from the need to explain experience, what Jameson calls the ‘reification of destinies’. However, in throwing off the shackles of protagonicity, it floods the stage with an impassive, poreless subjectivity, one which categorically cannot accommodate any universality because it is literally particular. When ‘fiction’ loses this dynamic tension between the universal and particular, it ceases to be fiction, and this is cause for concern if you believe, as I do, that the construction, deconstruction, reconstruction, of narratives of personhood – the critique of ideology through the dismantling of stereotype and then the repetition of the process – is the fucking motor of culture. What the autofictional posture promises, then, is the fruitless spinning of wheels. A better metaphor, with its evocations of self-optimisation, might be a treadmill.
Here we have the contemporary mode: the inability to conceive of the future leading to a detachment so total that even the life of fantasy becomes virtual, a fantasy of fantasy; so the character is nothing but a writer, so the diary becomes the novel, so stories we tell ourselves to live become commodified prison logs, shorn even of the stupid optimisms that once propelled us into the diminished future.
What, understood systemically, might be called a formal crisis, is in the context of this book a formal triumph. Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, with its economical and devastating humour, must necessarily fail to fulfil any promises of progression, redemption, or growth, since it is about failure, a lack of fulfilment. I love this book. But without optimism, in the sense of forward movement, trajectory – without expectation, you can have no narrative, no story, no progression, no politics beyond the frustrated re-presentation of the already known. Nostalgia is here to give you one thing and one thing only: it’s the zeitgeist, baby, distilled to its essence. It’s perfect at being what it is. But where do we go from nowhere?
Note: My thoughts about irreproachability and autofiction were informed by Sally Olds’ ‘The Beautiful Piece’ in People Who Lunch: Essays on Work, Leisure, and Loose Living (forthcoming with Upswell). I’m indebted also to Leah Jing for conversations about stand-up and poetry, and for directing me to Cathy Park Hong’s discussion of Richard Pryor in Minor Feelings.
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
Catherine Gallagher, ‘The Rise of Fictionality’, in The Novel, ed. Franco Moretti
Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism