Jillian by Halle Butler

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Halle Butler’s Jillian is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. I should think of a way to articulate that more elegantly and contribute to the annals of literary criticism. But I’ve been trying to do as Megan, Jillian’s early-twenties protagonist would do, and she would probably say: what the fuck is the fucking point?

Droll, scatological, and delightfully subversive in its gender portrayals, Jillian is what the TV show Girls would be if 1) it were a novel and 2) it were at its best every week. Megan is a small (both literally and figuratively), selfish, and miserable young woman who has plenty of reasons to be miserable. She has no career prospects and works as a gastroenterologist’s secretary filing away colon scans. Megan projects her misery upon her co-worker Jillian, a God-loving, spin-cycling optimist in her early thirties who appears to subsist primarily on junk food. Horrifyingly, Jillian is also the mother of a small child. Megan’s work days are filled with Jillian’s incessant nattering about her ridiculous hopes and dreams.

Jillian is both cartoonish and complicated. Allergic to introspection, she represents a mutation of the American dreamer, someone who believes whatever internal voids she harbors can be filled by acquiring things that she can’t afford or take care of. She has both a dog and a child, but no checking account. Butler is a ninja at conjuring Jillian’s peculiar mental state in her internal monologues, which are mundane, absurd, and foreboding all at once.

Jillian and her baby were sitting on the couch having dinner and Jillian felt hollow like she sometimes did. Just a body thing, really. They were watching America’s Funniest Home Videos, and Adam was very involved. Babies and dogs and dogs and cats and dogs and women at barbeques interacted with each other in hilarious combinations, and her son… laughed through his pasta at all the fun the people and animals were having. As she watched Adam watch, she was struck by the vague idea about the promise of life (as represented by the babies on screen) and about not giving up on passions. While she looked at Adam, she understood that he was a baby with passions.

In contrast, Megan’s passions waver between complaining about her life and drinking canned, watery beer in the morning. In this passage, after Megan has literally fallen into her kitchen sink and lacerated her ass on one of her knives, her morning routines (and libations) are as toxic as Fukushima.

There were few more vulnerable feelings to Megan than taking a nasty shit while wet, cold, slimy, and naked… It was always the smell of burning tires that rose beneath her on these kinds of mornings… She flushed, rewashed her ass and crotch (also a new habit, preceded by a three-year yeast infection), washed her hands, put some Neosporin on the thick scab on her ass, shook her hair out of the towel, and then wrapped the towel around her body.

“Hey baby, you look cute,” said Randy.

“Yeah, I feel fucking adorable. Where are my tights?” He doesn’t know where my tights are, where the fuck are my fucking tights? she thought.

Jillian is a totem of Megan’s worst fears, the person she’s actively trying to avoid becoming. But at least Jillian is something (a mother, a secretary who’s okay with that), while Megan hasn’t committed to anything. Her job means nothing to her. She has no aspirations. Her relationship with Randy seems destined to fail. At a party, Megan’s friend Amanda tells her that she’d rather befriend a drunken stranger “who looks like he might barf in my face, than hang out with you for another second.”

Jillian is a hilarious portrayal of those urban twenty-something years—that age before you’ve made any choices to define yourself, and everything is a placeholder for an uncertain future that scares you. Megan’s friends seem to face this fear with a creepily sunny disposition. Nice-guy Randy seems fine with working from home and eating nice cheese with stale tortilla chips. While Megan’s increasing levels of shit-talking and beer-drinking finally push him toward the door, Randy, like Jillian, seems equally allergic to facing the truth that he should move on. Amanda, despite verbally eviscerating Megan in the first half of the book, admits to herself that she’s obsessed with her estranged friend and spends the rest of the novel waiting for Megan’s apology. Among all the characters, there is an undercurrent of physical and psychological violence. I started to feel like it was entirely possible that both Megan and Jillian could be driven to homicide by their neuroses.

On the surface, Jillian is a novel about lost millenials, but I read it as something more. Jillian is a darkly comic allegory about America, a nation pathologically unwilling to make tough choices for a better tomorrow, but quite willing to trade substantive change for ephemeral satisfaction (i.e. spiritual junk food). Read that way, Butler’s novel is not just the funniest book I’ve read in a long time, but also one of the most important ones.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has appeared in publications such as NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. You can follow Cheuk on Twitter at @lcheuk. More from this author →