Joshua Klarica reviews Nostalgia has ruined my Life by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle
Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life
Reviewed by JOSHUA KLARICA
A technique commonly employed by poets is the announcing of the setting or theme of the piece in its title. Consider T. S Eliot’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, whose title functions as a covert, preliminary line that allows the poem to maintain its effective couplet form. This device eliminates exposition in the work, and plants the reader in the thick of it immediately. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, the New Zealand writer whose first book Autobiography of a Marguerite takes the long poem form, utilises this same tactic in the title of her second work. Before we encounter the first words of Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, the thesis has already been rambunctiously stated. Butcher-McGunnigle, it seems, insists that we view the impending labours of the unnamed protagonist through this prism, managing our expectations – ensuring we understand – before we read and, inevitably, pass judgment.
At once a dark, meandering comedy, at once a documentary of the stultified millennial, Butcher-McGunnigle’s second work follows the deadpan joys and luckless U-turns of a young woman navigating the trials and illusions of youth in an age where ennui seems a rite of passage. She idles time on dating apps, reads online horoscopes, and attempts to apply for jobs before reaching the cover letter and thinking “I can’t be bothered, I don’t care about this at all”. (p25) Any successes are swiftly undone, while any misfortune is short-lived: this is the recipe for getting by.
While the denouement of the text revolves around securing an administration job at a bakery through a short-lived ménage à trois, the source proper lies amid a series of events not particularly concerned with forming a narrative at all. The text consists of short bursts of commentary, noting moods, whims, and events, usually little more than a paragraph in length, although on rare occasion these break onto a second page. This book of vignettes, although this is a loose term here, might be an exercise mandated by her therapist. They chart, comment, and record the events of a life waiting to get going.
It is initially challenging to determine whether this is boredom palpable, or rather a languishing attributable to the rising challenges of mental health. There is dry pathos here: “I’m still experiencing cognitive dissonance regarding the heater I bought” (p8). This same humour is bundled into a cry for help: “I’m trying to stop sleeping with a towering pile of clothes on my bed so now I’m sleeping with a towering pile of clothes on the floor instead”(p48). As the notes pile up, the narrator reports suffering from depersonalisation disorder and depression, the intense feelings of being outside of one’s body: watching instead of driving. This recasts any initial suspicions that this was an entitled, bored millennial moping and milling, but still, dealing only in sharp statements, Butcher-McGunnigle never truly invites the reader to know the subject.
Instead, the collages of text become confessions of one simultaneously trying to appraise and make sense of a situation. Not many can say with confidence that they “want to pick blackberries on a farm and then die”(p8), or that they want, this moment, to have scabs on one’s knees(p39). Yet for all their darkly droll commentary, these confessions give way to more sincere, and serious, realities. If having scabs is proof that we have lived, the gaining of that experience is another case altogether. Later, during an interview, our protagonist suddenly “can’t concentrate on anything” because her intrusive thoughts have inexplicably fixated upon her “ankles (being) gnawed open and bleeding, bones exposed”(p44). There is bravado in these lines, but it gives way easily.
If one joy of the reading experience can be found in plugging the gaps and discerning what happens outside of the story presented, then there is an entire world that carries on beyond these short monologues, making the task of the literary synapse jump a rather difficult one. This isn’t to say that such a limitation necessarily works against Butcher-McGunnigle here. While the fragmentary, oscillating nature of narration might not appear particularly cohesive, the blunt imagery claiming the protagonist’s days is thoughtful. Late one night, for example, while fending off the internal machines that question what she is doing with her life, she is struck by an ad for a mop. Later, she feels compelled to mop up a mess herself, or sweep dust into a pile. It might seem ridiculous, like wanting to walk down a very long driveway, but at least it is something to counteract, through any means possible, the feeling of uselessness. Throughout the text, Butcher-McGunnigle is deftly at work arguing that almost anything can have purpose, so why is it that we can struggle so much to find it?
Another equally dark and unnamed heroine suffering a similar anxiety can be found in Otessa Moshfegh’s much appreciated 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Only, where Moshfegh’s protagonist ends up losing a year, Butcher-McGunnigle’s is so helplessly aware of each ridiculing second as it takes an age to pass. This is a take on modern anxiety that exceeds Moshfegh’s effort, in part (and noting that the heroines are separated by two decades), because Butcher-McGunnigle makes it clear that life, irresistibly, goes on elsewhere. One of the great strengths of Butcher-McGunnigle’s subtlety is the way the external cast – a host of nostalgic-laden folks including ex-boyfriends, high school bullies and siblings – become osculating matter in the protagonist’s orbit, whose episodic appearances work to chastise her own effort at getting on with it, while reinforcing the absurdity of doing just that. Butcher-McGunnigle unveils the hilariously twisted idiosyncrasies employed to handle the increasingly native experience of lackadaisy, like scamming Airbnb or securing one’s place in an elusive pyramid scheme.
This mode of commentary is calculated, refined so it reflects a persona under siege of review and hyperaware of its own subjectivity. It is life in the internet age – bite-sized content that excels at the entertaining and the forgettable. In an endemic example, our protagonist is ovulating, and laments that
[n]o one’s giving me any attention so I make an apple pie at midnight. I spray multi-purpose cleaner on the pie and it shines and then it gets soggy. Last week I had sex with an orphan. But we fell out before I could give him his birthday gift. (p38)
Beyond the jocular and the intimate, for better or for worse, this is how she wants to be seen. Reading these episodes becomes an exhibition, and so hints at the works compelling theme: in what spaces do we exist, and what dictates them? Horoscopes, Tarot readings, Myers-Briggs personality tests, and a litany of online chats informs Butcher-McGunnigle’s protagonist of a particular sense of self, and how she and others view it.
There is much space between these episodes to which we are not privy, meaning these episodes, their scarcity, their intensity, is highly selective. As a result, Butcher-McGunnigle’s work tussles over the roles we should be performing, but not necessarily those that we do. Sure, there are the more obvious episodes Butcher-McGunnigle wants us to note on the matter: “When he’s fucking me I am thinking about what would be an easy but nutritious lunch option for him” (p15). Then there other, subtler evidences of her poor, somehow inaccurate performances of being, like when the Mystery Shopper she is sleeping with insists they can’t both be INFP’s, or the interviewer for a teaching role suggests they instead brainstorm some other vocations for which she might be suited. Yet our heroine has all the attributes that suggest she should be, or at least can be, successful. A writing career, even though it has stalled here; pregnancy, though not seen through; a deep and very mixed bag of suitors that find her attractive and endearing but succumb themselves to obnoxity and online currency; her own intelligence, in spades that can’t find the matching outlet – she is sharp and useful as a blade kept behind inch-thick display glass. So, it isn’t so much a matter of finding someone to say I love you to, but rather in finding a way to value the act itself.
Before we begin Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s second work, we are asked to assume that nostalgia has to some effect shaped the story that follows. Be it warm liminality or useless retreat, we are immediately called upon to approach the text with our prejudices for or against nostalgia in hand. But by works end, this initial outpost seems rather ham-fisted, for nostalgia in these pages cannot simply reference halcyon throwbacks. Rather, it reflects a time when we were unencumbered by the dictates of our performance.
Nostalgia emerges when we look back. It is difficult to unsee. “I just want to be in a ball pit in a McDonald’s playground,”(p80)admits the young-but-too-old female in the closing passages. Yet the way is shut, and now even the longing for this kind of easier, familiar passage becomes its own performance. But everything is fleeting, we know this much, which has both a kind of crestfallen truth and surprising optimism to it: this too shall pass.