It’s Not Easy Being Seen

The cover of Jillian: A Novel

In today’s novels of disillusionment, every party has at least one person who doesn’t know why they’re there, who is thinking, as they find themselves on the periphery of various conversations: “Oh my god, everyone in this world is just way too interested in things.”

So proclaims Megan in Halle Butler’s debut novel Jillian (2015), issued in a new paperback edition this summer. Megan is a typically afflicted millennial protagonist, so chronically overwhelmed that she doesn’t even notice it anymore. She drifts through life on cynical, unflappable autopilot: immune to surprise or delight, excessively spiteful toward anyone who is not. A twentysomething who is a medical-records technician at a gastroenterologist’s office, she spends her hours at work waiting to go home so she can get wasted and spends her time at home getting wasted as a way of putting off the question of how to spend her hours.

Jillian is Megan’s colleague and chirpy counterpart, an optimistic thirtysomething single mother with boundless enthusiasm, who is, according to Megan, way too interested in way too many things: her many start-up business ideas, the special-needs dog she is determined to adopt, and the cute animal photos that she aggressively sends to her contacts. She constantly imagines a new and improved life for herself. “After I get a few more things in order and out of the way, things are going to start getting better, I promise,” thinks Jillian. “I just want to get my work done so I can go home . . . And then what?” thinks Megan.

At first, Jillian and Megan appear to be opposites. But it’s clear that they represent two responses to the same problem: thankless work under late capitalism. By showing how the same self-centered, deluded stuckness can manifest itself so differently in two characters, Butler makes the reader feel uneasy, perhaps a little too seen. Her second book, The New Me, was a similar bildungsroman, an office novel documenting the dreariness of life as a temp circa 2019. Millie, another young worker, notes blandly: “At my desk I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to come to this room and sit at this desk and slowly collect money.”

Like the protagonists of Jillian, Millie is stuck. In Butler’s world, this sameness is a constant, no matter how it manifests. Megan’s stuckness is shown through her insecurity, her empty political posturing, her insistence that she is saving her mind for loftier matters. By making Megan as relatable as she is unlikeable, Butler turns a witty, cynical eye on a generation for which politics usually came with dose of irony and self-loathing. At times, Butler shows us the root of this pose. One of Megan’s friends at a party perfectly diagnoses her inability to be stirred: “It was impossible to ‘explore the complications of human feeling,’ as Megan was calling it, while you felt miserable,” she notes. “Those explorations were best left for times of reflection, when your judgment was not confused by the horrible lens of self-hatred.”

This same diagnosis falls short when applied to Jillian, who doesn’t start the story miserable, exactly, and who, given the chance, might have enthusiastically participated in a larger political project grounded in empathy. But Jillian withers in her twisted idea of selfless self-care. At first her positivity is sincere and relentless. “We are so lucky,” she tells Megan earnestly. “We could be working at, you know, a steel mill or something.” She constantly reassures herself that things will get better and practices what she calls “visualizations,” creating a picture of a future she can look forward to. These quirks are touching—and refreshing after Megan’s empty nihilism—but readers will know something darker is coming.

Jillian’s downfall begins with a seemingly trivial problem. Her car gets impounded over outstanding fines. But she can’t bear the idea of being seen as irresponsible, so she tells her boss that she wrecked the car in an accident. In order to make this story more convincing, she starts hobbling and taking painkillers, even when no one is around, and eventually begins to believe that she was in an accident. As she becomes overly enmeshed in her sunny fantasies and lies, she begins to neglect everyday necessities, ignoring phone calls from the court, making shopping lists on which dog toys take priority over her car, and buying prepper quantities of cookies and Pop-Tarts. As she becomes stripped of her former blithe cheerfulness, her talent for avoiding the realities of adult life, once a source of positivity, becomes destructive—and terrifying to watch.

“Jillian’s life was shitty, and Jillian didn’t know how to improve it because she was too stupid,” summarizes an acquaintance, Elena, who is sick of driving Jillian’s son to day care, and of Jillian’s disinterest in getting her car back. Of course, the novel’s real critique here is not of Jillian, but of the larger systems that have crushed her spirt, of capitalism and work and the reality of so many women and single mothers who have to survive however they can. Read in this light, the author’s treatment of Jillian is still a little baffling. Is Butler saying that even visualizing a different kind of life is a risky delusion? Does she take a little too much pleasure in portraying a “stupid” thirty-five-year-old who eats Pop-Tarts for lunch? Jillian sometimes seems like a handy prop; it’s as if whatever happens to her is not personal so much as symptoms of a larger and limiting system. But stories are personal. My attachment to Jillian—her rare burst of enthusiasm in a cast of characters who are just too cool—is personal. The promise that things will get better is personal, even if we can’t immediately know how to get wherever we’re supposed to be, and even if we are prone to stress-eating and dumb decisions.

Butler manages, perhaps unintentionally, to seem scornful of the idea that we can improve our lives. By the end of the story, Jillian and Megan seem like the same character. And while it’s true that there is a uniformity of misery these days, no matter how that misery is outwardly expressed, readers of Jillian may start to wonder whether Butler takes her characters seriously. In the novel, politics are performative and hope will be twisted into something inward and ugly. In other words, change on the individual level is doomed and superficial. But it would take characters with real depth to make this idea fully land.

While Jillan tapers off into exhausted stagnation, The New Me’s disenchantment briefly offers a glimmer of hope. The rut Millie and Megan live in is similarly tired and chronic—badly smudged morning makeup and all. But out of this blur emerges something strange and rare. “Somewhere in the circle of Millie’s time on Earth, she spent a sleepless night mulling things over. She was no longer in the part of life where things changed. Her actions from here on out would carry more permanence, could no longer be easily swapped out for something new,” Butler writes. “Realizing this, she felt panic, deep and wide and boundless, and then she felt release.”

The change is almost imperceptible: she remains in a dreary job, with a presumably similar routine and similarly unsatisfying relationships. But after this sense of release, something seems to have lifted. The New Me ends on a note of hope that wavers: the feeling that one’s actions carry permanence is always temporary. Jillian ends with the steadfast routine of lamenting our unimportance; with that same gently wavering hope, it, too, might have given its women the possibility of waking up in the morning and trying something new.

Apoorva Tadepalli has written for The Point, Real Life, Guernica and other outlets.