At first I thought I didn’t have very much to say about this book, which is a problem when I’m meant to be reviewing it. It’s just about normal people, having normal feelings, and doing normal things. It’s a simple novel about two women who work in a doctor’s office who are too myopic, potentially even solipsistic, to engage with each other in any meaningful way. It’s not even a spooky or psychological self-obsession, just a mundane millennial one. These women are in separate but parallel cycles of doom, but nothing really terrible happens. There is no cataclysmic climax. It’s just life. And what’s there to say about that?
So then I went back to what made me want to read Jillian in the first place. It was first published in the USA in 2015, but has now been reissued, finally with a UK release. I’ve had it on my TBR list since I read Butler’s follow-up novel last year, The New Me—a delightfully mundane tale of a temp worker who isn’t good at her job, or at existing independently as an adult at all. Despite its limited subject matter, or perhaps because of it, I really loved that book. It was widely compared to My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh because of its accurate portrayal of millennial discontent, and it made my ‘best of 2019 list’, as well as many others. There was just something about it, in its simplicity and subtly. But looking back at my review, I experienced the same difficulty trying to express what about it I actually enjoyed.
Like in The New Me (and indeed in Moshfegh’s comparative work)—we are presented with characters that aren’t particularly likeable, but that, if you’re someone who is in their 20s or 30s and lives in an urban space, are deeply familiar. Not naming names.
And that’s not particularly unique. The last few years of women heroes in fiction have been a complete undoing of what came before, in the best possible way. In contrast to ‘the strong female lead’ (vom) we are being presented with women who could not give a fuck. Their lives are average. Their dreams are average. Their relationships are average. They deal with the average ups and downs in average ways and come back to their average homes to sleep off their average woes and then start their average days again. And fuck do I love reading about those women. Those women are all around me. They are the women who make my life a colourful mess.
While writing this, I’ve suddenly become emotional thinking about that scene in 13 Going On 30 where Jenna suggests a rebrand of Sparkle magazine. In direct opposition to her best friend-turned-competitor’s suggestion—that they need more edge and more grit—she suggests a ‘back to reality’ approach.
“Who are these women? Does anyone know? I don’t recognise any of them? I wanna see my best friend’s big sister. And the girls from the soccer team. My next door neighbour.”
My analogy is abruptly terminated as she finishes by saying these are “Real women who are smart and pretty and happy to be who they are.” Because that’s not the case with Halle Butler’s characters. They’re actually the opposite. They are deeply unhappy being who they are, where they are, why they are. But that’s why I recognise them. That’s why I want to see them.
Megan uses the judgement of everyone around her as a distraction from how much she hates herself. She is a typical apathetic millennial who detests any ounce of earnest enjoyment for life because she has none. She acknowledges that she is sad, that she hates her life, but she has no desire to change it. If you do not try, you cannot fail.
Jillian, the titular character, is a single mum who is actively trying to improve her life, but every step she takes is so undoubtedly wrong that it does nothing but deepen the sadness of her situation. In contrast to Megan, she remains in a permanent state of denial that manifests as optimism.
The book leaves you with a sense of despair, that these two characters in their infinite, parallel misery could not find each other despite such close quarters. That might not be a metaphor. It probably just is what it is. But to me it felt like a metaphor for just about everything. How close and yet how far apart we are in this modern world.
While these two characters take us through the story, as the book goes on, we’re given more and more insights from inside the minds of peripheral characters. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why Butler gives us these alternative perspectives. I like to think that it’s the characters gaining awareness of the world around them, and being moved to change, but I’m not sure that’s where we leave them and I’m not sure it matters. Not when the most interesting and unexpected of these comes from Jillian’s dog, who gives us a philosophical statement on the blind repetition of everyday life—something I didn’t know I needed from a novel. Therapy from a dog.
I can imagine that if you have little self awareness, or only surface level relationships with struggling friends, it would be easy to read Jillian and absolutely hate these characters, or find them dull. You could be a casual observer to the spectacle of their misery, detached and judgemental. They are hopeless, and culture for decades has thrived on active pursuers of goals, fate, and destiny. These are not the heroes we are told to seek and indulge in.
But as someone who has had countless conversations with friends about how they can’t shake the dull pain of the simple act of existence, or about how each carefully orchestrated step towards success leads to inevitable failure—these are the protagonists of my own existence. And they deserve page time, too. And that’s what writers like Halle Butler are giving us. A representation of women who try and fail, or more realistically, who don’t try and still fail. A woman does not need to be strong or to be remarkable or to be exceptional to be worth reading about. We are in a lucky place that culture recognises this, and that we are given stories that examine just women attempting to get through the day and allow us to call them literature.
By Halle Butler
210 pages. 2015.