Jillian, by Halle Butler. Chicago, Illinois: Curbside Splendor Publishing, February 2015. 240 pages. $9.95, paper.
Just know that when you enter a staring contest with Halle Butler’s first novel Jillian, you will not win. You will need to acknowledge your defeat quietly, then find a quiet place to recoup.
Butler’s workplace premise is familiar. Jillian and Megan work in the same gastroenterologist’s office. Megan, a miserable twenty-four-year-old, spends her days filing digital images of people’s insides while her boyfriend Randy paces their apartment, thinking of ways to break up with her. Her coworker Jillian is a single mother in her mid-thirties who longs to be her own boss and create the kind of life that might make a terrific rags-to-riches reality television show for TLC. She’s relentlessly, crushingly delusional about the possibilities her life affords her. Though they sit only a few feet apart in the office, the women remain planets orbiting different suns. This odd coupling is where the familiar workplace premise stops and something more sinister sets in.
Megan complains to her friends and picks fights with Randy, caught in a swirling vortex of jealousy and vitriol. Megan’s attentions, once completely focused on Jillian’s faults, begin to turn inward. In Megan, Butler captures the fear of finality, of the possibility that anyone at all can sink into obscurity and isolation while surrounded by friends. As her friends and acquaintances begin to see real success in the world, Megan’s incapable of wrenching her gaze from her own perceived failures. “It’s just a formula,” she says of a friend’s design work that has made a national magazine. “Only one in, I don’t know, ten thousand designers are real artists.”
This story moves quickly, shifting without warning from one point view to another without fully committing to a nice, comfortable narrative distance. Chapters begin and end in surprising fits and starts that fragment any real growth the characters have.
While Megan flounders at the other end of the office, Jillian masks one mistake after another with cheery platitudes. As their lives outside the office fall apart, however, they have less and less to say to each other. The further they drift, the more erratic their behavior, the less Butler flinches. Butler’s prose is unsparing and brutally efficient, ducking in and out of dialogue and interiority. Jillian is expert at pinking her own lenses, but when reality begins to color her fear, Butler allows her a rare moment of clarity:
After dinner, Jillian poured herself two blows of cereal. She sat in front of the tv and she didn’t have any money, and the dog and Adam had no idea that meant they didn’t have any money either. It was weird to look around and see nice carpet, a kid and a dog, all in the glow of a tv, and to have a full stomach, but to know she had no money. Maybe she would start smoking again.
While Jillian lies about a car accident and subsequent injury and then justifies her way into a pill addiction, Megan promises to Randy that she will try to be the kind of girlfriend who is content “at least 70 percent of the time,” knowing full well that her efforts will be futile. There is no sense of balance, no safe space for anyone, and I caught myself worrying for the characters after I’d put the book down for the night. It was a curious feeling—I wasn’t so much invested in what was happening in the book (days are void of connection and purpose and evenings are rife with tears and existential railing) as much as I was just worried for the psychological safety of the characters. This includes Randy, who skirts the periphery of the story looking for evidence that he will one day be able to escape the gaping void that is his girlfriend.
As their stories hurtle onward toward destruction, Butler unhands the steering wheel and takes her foot off the brakes. Like Jillian’s prayer to Jesus for an actual wreck that would land her in the hospital and give credence to her downward spiral, I too wished for a fight or a death or another accidental knife in the sink before the last page. Anything would have been better than having to acknowledge the bleak conclusion: though a fire is coming for them both, Megan and Jillian are no phoenixes.
Jack Kaulfus is a writer in Austin, Texas. Jack’s work can be found in Barrelhouse Online, A cappella Zoo, FAWLT magazine, Devilfish Review, and other places both online and in print.