March 16, 2021

The Millennial Literary Voice was always going to have trouble establishing itself. It is, after all, defined by a subject that literature always struggles with, because it lacks a proper verb: being online. Consider the number of Poirot mysteries that would easily be solved with Google, and a life inside tech seems to be without the dimensions required for narrative. Yet the alternative — an anachronistic world in which characters pretend they don’t spend Sunday nights in deflated doom-scrolling — is even worse. As is descending into William Gibson cyber-surfer neural-network blather: in the age of always-on, somehow sci fi has never felt more distant. The thing in the middle will define the Voice — how we use tech and how tech uses us.

In 1997, just after the youngest millennials were born, Damien Hirst accidentally prophesied how that tension would affect their generation, in the title of his art book: “I WANT TO SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE, EVERYWHERE, WITH EVERYONE, ONE TO ONE, ALWAYS, FOREVER, NOW.” The online world is destructively dual: it creates a delirious dream of boundlessness, while being an open prison; its subjects can see anything, while under total surveillance. These days, the kids who were toddlers when Hirst was pickling his first shark know this so implicitly that they seldom really think about it.  For them, what they screen off — and what they broadcast — has always been a function of being the first generation to undergo the process of identity formation within the feedback loop of a networked world.

And what that gets up-voted above all else, in that world, is emotional disclosure. It is the “stunning and brave” tale of trauma, spliced with a measure of pithy, pungent political agitprop — the essay that can generalise out from “me me me” to any kind of oppressed “we”. The inherent narcissism of the confessional genre is offset by those “we” aspects of the generalising think-piece, while the most shareable articles on social media have that same combination of relatability and a call to arms. In that context, writers like Jia Tolentino are in poll position to be the Voice.

Back in 2014, Tolentino was an editor at Jezebel, the blog site that pioneered a certain kind of personal-is-political feminism, now everywhere, which involves paying women $50 to share painful experiences in their past. Tolentino’s own work never misses the chance to score some minor culture wars point, always peeling back yet more of the soft viscera of her hurts in exchange for kudos.

Like many women who grew up in the 90s, Tolentino feels defined by her very online-ness. At the start of her 2019 essay collection, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, she tracks the technological timeline of her life, from hymning the alien fritz of the 48k dial-up modem to raking over her pre-teen diary on her AngelFire website. For her, it was that early experience of online identity construction that represents that generational break-point. “The self is not a fixed, organic thing, but a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance,” she says. But: “the internet adds a host of other, nightmarish metaphorical structures: the mirror, the echo, the panopticon.”

Life in the internet’s panopticon means you can never screen-off your personality — never engage in the perfectly normal behaviour of being different people in different social settings. It’s a process Tolentino sees as inherently crazymaking, because it means you’re never “off”, you never get to be in a rumpus room of consequence-free engagement. This over-construction, she concludes with the weary inevitability of an ex-Jezebel writer, is worse for women, who have always been socialised that way. She offers a millennial cliché as a solution: be more you. Lean into your saleable self. Tolentino is very good at doing this; she seems to have a native gift for swimming with the digital tides.

The same cannot be said of Roisin Kiberd, who, with a pedigree at VICE and a thing for techno-dystopian Mark Fischer, is another contender for the Voice. True, her new collection of essays, The Disconnect, opens with a remarkably similar catalogue of digital personhood. And the two are almost the same age; Kiberd references many of the same formative moments in the life of the net as Tolentino. But while Tolentino was expertly curating her brand, Kiberd began to come apart. In early 2016, she tells us, she had a breakdown, swallowed a month’s worth of pills and washed them down with cheap rum — taking care to set her Twitter to private, and write down all her online passwords.

A Dubliner, Kiberd had a PR job as the voice of an online cheese brand, then drifted into ill-paid, gig economy work writing about tech and for tech. Meantime, Dublin’s property market trebled in value, meaning that hers is a life of shunting between share-houses, with regular crestfallen returns to the parental nest. Kiberd was supposedly living the dream, a quintessential anywhere, free to jet off at a moment’s notice to live an Emily In Paris-style in a dreamy mittel European city. Yet in truth, all she does is work obsessively, storing up shifts on the treadmill today to make room for some undefined “real life” tomorrow. Anything that could be regarded as progress, the true stuff of life — a decent home, colleagues, regularity, hobbies — hovers just out of reach. Her world has become an infinite scroll, she’s a hare on a wire.

Somewhere, she knows this. But can she stop it? Can she look away? Well, ask yourself: can you?

If Tolentino is The Millennial Voice in 1D — a flatland of on-message self-disclosure — then Kiberd is its 2D upgrade: human, often lyrical, if still prone to cling to the orthodoxies of the consensus culture. But it takes the memoir-as-fiction to really nail the Voice in 3D; for true millennial thought, you need someone who thinks beyond the impact of tech in culture. Who thinks about culture as though it were just another kind of tech.

Lauren Oyler was once a writer in VICE’s Brooklyn offices. I think I saw her there, in late 2015. Her tribe, Broadly — VICE’s women’s pages — were hived off in a single glass-panelled office, about eight of them around a single board room table. Peering in, the vibe did not seem good in their own personal panopticon. To say Oyler’s fantastic new novel Fake Accounts is thinly-veiled is an insult to the diaphanous. It’s literary cling-film, right down to the Peanut Butter M&M dispenser in that Brooklyn HQ. Oyler’s lead — like her, like Tolentino — also writes articles which are “designed to say X is bad for women”, dredged up by fishing the net for similar articles. Just like her heroine, prior to VICE, Oyler “moved to Berlin” in the golden age of the moving-to-Berlin era, around 2012. According to nothing more reliable than internet forum gossip, “she refused to learn any German and made a huge unnecessary fuss about Berghain”, the celebrated club that’s basically impossible to get into. (Oyler apparently claims her German is fine.)

Oyler’s leading woman is a moth drawn to this Mecca of hip globalised youth culture. Actual Germans with actual lives and cultures move around behind her on wires, Non-Player Characters in her personal video game. She speaks none of the language. She invests nothing. Instead, she spends a lot of time of Twitter, babysits for an American woman and goes on shapeless, meaningless internet dates, dishing up a string of fake personas for a string of nice enough men.

To say that Oyler has captured the Millennial Voice would almost be an understatement. She’s nailed that sense in which the surveillance is as much internal as external. Her narrator is perfectly self-aware, yet gets in tussles with herself about politics. Somewhere, there’s a catechism of things she merely thinks she believes, that she should believe — the same decision paralysis you see everywhere. When another character admits to an obsessive desire to get into baking, you get the sense she’s riven between the notion that baking is fantastically Instagrammable, and an ongoing ascetic quest to purge, to forego the net entirely and get back to real, manual work.

The Millennial’s is a binge-purge universe; a neurotically self-optimising one, always looking for the next tweak, the next FODMAP-free diet, or net-abstaining dopamine fast — which will be the one that will finally snap life itself into focus. Meanwhile, panning back, the truth of the matter that people with two Master’s degrees share shabby houses in cities where they don’t belong, well into their thirties, always on dates, always on Twitter, and thus perfectly, sublimely, free. It’s a culture of never truly gaining anything because you never truly commit to anything.

Oyler “divides her time” between New York and Berlin now. Kiberd’s Instagram bio says she’s “Irish, mostly in Berlin”. The climax of the latter’s book comes, where else, at the Berghain (though she never actually names the club). There she is reunited with an apparent true love, in a town with “rents a third of Dublin”. At around the same moment in history, back in fiction, Oyler’s narrator was also trotting past the place, making mindless quips.

Berghain is famous for confiscating your phone on arrival. If Berlin is Mecca, then Berghain is the Black Stone of Kaaba, a big silent rock nothing can penetrate. Somewhere in there is a place where, for just one night, you cannot post anything to your socials. It is the Lost World Of Spontaneity. And while the word spontaneity has a reputation for, y’know, carefree stuff, in truth it requires deliberate choice. It requires putting something down, in order to become undivided. A lesson which none of our real or fake memoirists ever fully absorb.

Turns out the voice of the millennial isn’t so much that of the Anywhere as the exhausted Everywhere: a generation who simultaneously wish to have the kudos of the rat race, the hyper-socialisation of the big city, and yet also the simple parsimony, the mental clarity and basic stability, that comes from families and small towns; and the sacrifice inherent in choosing. You cannot live the rest of a life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always and forever — now can you?