If I made a Mount Rushmore of authors from the millennial generation, it would consist of Peter Martuneac, H.R.R. Gorman, Zachary Shatzer, and Bertocci. I don’t mean to imply they are the only good millennial authors, of course. As Tom Lehrer would say, “there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered.” It’s just that they are the ones I know about, and each of them, in their own unique ways, captures something about our generation.
And of the four, Bertocci may be the most thoroughly millennial of the lot. Martuneac, Gorman, and Shatzer write of the future and the past, of the supernatural, the fantastic and the bizarre, weaving their millennial themes into their tales. Bertocci, though, writes literary fiction set in the present day, and squarely about millennials.
The Hundred Other Rileys is a perfect example: it follows a woman named Riley who is adrift in life. Here is her description of her job:
[M]y own job is not to understand, it’s to keep track of who’s doing what in Google Sheets and send a lot of emails with exclamation points asking when other people who do things will do them. ‘Riley Bender – Innovation Associate’, my signature reads…
There are versions of me in every sprawling corporation–the hubs, the go-betweens, the copier-pasters and checkers of boxes, whose lot it is neither to know nor to do, but to merely assign, assess, go after, be whatever fills the gap. We look. We circle back. We forward. We facilitate. Sometimes we liaise. We don’t strategize, that’s too serious. We sync. We send updates. We tell ourselves we don’t shuffle papers, it’s all in the digital realm. We thank in advance. No worries if not. We don’t really do what our companies do, but we get on the same page, no worries if not. We do nothing that matters, and we’re all so behind.
Isn’t that dead-on? If you’ve had a job like this, you know how it feels. It isn’t hard… it’s just so blatantly pointless.
But one day Riley sees a picture of a woman who looks like her in an advertisement. And from there, she starts seeing the same stock photo model everywhere, as if mocking her own career’s dead-endedness, alluding to all the other opportunities she missed, all the paths not taken.
What follows is a mind-bending, fourth-wall-breaking, exploration of frustration, stultification and ultimately, how to get past them. There’s even a little bit about writer’s block in it, though I won’t discuss that in detail for fear of spoilers. But every writer I know will want to read it. And that goes double for millennials, to whom Bertocci speaks like no other writer I’ve read.
Be warned, I’m about to speak in broad generalities about an entire generation. Obviously, not every millennial will fit the description I’m about to give. I myself am something of a mixed bag in this regard: in some ways, I fit certain millennial stereotypes to a “t”. In other respects, not so much. So, please don’t think I’m asserting every person born between 1981 and 1996 has all these qualities.
Okay, so what’s up with us millennials? Why, to quote some beloved Boomer family members of mine, are we such whiners? Back in my parents’ day, they had to fight two lions every day… etc. My generation has it so easy!
Well, in a sense, yes, we do have it easy. I was born in 1990. I am much happier I was born in 1990 than in say, 1950, or God forbid, 1850. This is actually an excellent time to be alive in any meaningful historical context.
Are we millennials simply coddled, spoiled, soft, decadent weaklings, like the debased aristocrats of the very late Roman Empire? Are we, or more to the point, all our complaints about society, reflective of nothing but moral turpitude brought on by the proverbial idle hands?
Well, I don’t think so. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The problem millennials face is exactly the one illustrated by Riley’s obsession with her doppelgänger: we face too many opportunities. In a world of endless possibilities, we all have to choose one, and it’s hard to be sure which one to take. Thus, we end up either choosing one and regretting it later, or worse yet, staying in a holding pattern too long.
Is this a good problem to have? I think so. Certainly, if Riley had been born a peasant in 1327, she would not face the same problems that she does as young person in the 2020s. And it’s hard to argue that the latter set of problems is not preferable.
What Bertocci has masterfully shown in literary form is that abundance can itself be a problem. It may be a better problem than scarcity, but it’s still a problem. And as a species, we’ve had millennia to learn to cope with scarcity. Abundance? That’s something new, weird, and very much foreign to us. Because biologically speaking, we’re not much different than the peasants of 1327.
That’s not uniquely a millennial issue, of course. Technological progress took off earlier in the 20th century, before the millennials’ parents were even born. Other things that characterize my generation include a sense of humor that relies heavily on cultural references, and a strong desire not to get beaten down by a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality in our work lives. Whether these are positive or negative qualities is something I leave entirely up to you to decide. What I do know is that this book captures all these aspects of the millennial weltanschauung.
This is why I describe Bertocci as, well, the voice of his generation. In many ways, this is the spiritual sequel to Bertocci’s wonderful Samantha, 25, on October 31, which I consider a masterpiece. This book is every bit a worthy successor to Samantha, and in some ways is even more inventive and original. It’s another splendid work of literary fiction, and deserves to be widely read.
[Note: Special thanks to Richard L. Pastore for reading an early draft of this review and making suggestions on how to improve it.]