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Halle Butler’s ‘Jillian’ Is a Frank Account of Discontent

Evoking both sarcasm and empathy, Butler paints Jillian and Megan as harbingers of a relatable alienation.

Jillian
Halle Butler
Penguin/Random House Books
July 2020

The struggle between individuality and capitalism’s enforcement of conformity is the crux of Halle Butler‘s Jillian. Originally published in 2015, then reprinted in 2020, Butler offers a stinging portrait of two discontented women clashing with the social systems built to oppress them. Butler slyly deconstructs the dominant understanding of happiness and success to conclude that it’s all malarkey. Jillian is a subversive illustration of how contemporary detritus leads individuals to cycles of delusion and self-destruction.

Megan and Jillian are a character study in commonality and contrast. Megan is a 25-year-old administrative assistant in a Chicago gastroenterologists’ office. She spends most of her day cruising the internet and “looking at saltine-sized photos of diseased anuses and colons” (54). She is counterbalanced by her titular colleague Jillian, a 35-year-old single mother. Whereas Megan’s mantra is “I don’t give a fuck” (53), Jillian unwaveringly believes in “keeping up appearances and believing that God would make things right again” (154). They are inverse reflections.

Megan is obsessed with hating Jillian. But Jillian is too busy to notice because she is indefatigably chasing the American dream. Butler prevents them from establishing an affinity to emphasize their rooted self-absorption. Instead, Megan finds comfort in being overly critical while Jillian deepens her delusion through pills, self-help books, and religion.

Their shared struggle with conformity and larger systematic inequalities outweigh the differences in their personalities. Jillian’s optimism and Megan’s anger are defense mechanisms against their terrifying sameness. Both Megan and Jillian’s offbeat personalities are written with wry humor and sly criticism, even if Jillian verges too close to the manic pixie girl stereotype.

Megan is often chastised for being unhappy. She’s told several times to “snap out of it”. Megan is certainly unpleasant, yet Butler unapologetically represents Megan’s misanthropy. Butler validates Megan’s angst by taking issue with the internal and external pressures to perform happiness. At one point, Megan compares herself to her peer, Carrie, a self-employed graphic designer, and the epitome generic success.

Megan reads Carrie’s online biography as “an ad for deodorant or laundry soap that makes you feel smelly and like you’d been doing something wrong that the person in the ad had already figured out” (49). She realizes Carrie’s portrayal of happiness is fake, and the fixation is only causing harm. But for Megan, the burden of engendering Carrie’s demeanor is overwhelming. The fact that she can’t emulate Carrie, or in actuality won’t, is the driving force of her depression.

The inability to reject conformity is a central theme throughout Jillian. At one point, Megan is so overwhelmed by the sameness of her life and job, she contemplates suicide. Jillian’s adoption of a rescue dog is a blatant attempt at recuperating the dominant image of domesticity from her actual single motherhood. However, it’s Jillian’s toddler son, Adam’s personification of conformity’s adverse effect, that is the most compelling.

Adults frequently deem Adam’s behavior as aberrant. As one example, he and two other little girls pretend to be a family. Rather than choosing to be a human member of the family, Adam decides he is the dog. This startles the girls and the daycare teacher who removes Adam and calls his playing “perverse” (115). Butler unequivocally renders conformity’s insidious demand for standardization. Especially effective in indoctrinating children in the ways of uniformity and single-mindedness.

Megan is often chastised for being unhappy. She’s told several times to “snap out of it”. Megan is certainly unpleasant, yet Butler unapologetically represents Megan’s misanthropy. Butler validates Megan’s angst by taking issue with the internal and external pressures to perform happiness. At one point, Megan compares herself to her peer, Carrie, a self-employed graphic designer, and the epitome generic success.

Megan reads Carrie’s online biography as “an ad for deodorant or laundry soap that makes you feel smelly and like you’d been doing something wrong that the person in the ad had already figured out” (49). She realizes Carrie’s portrayal of happiness is fake, and the fixation is only causing harm. But for Megan, the burden of engendering Carrie’s demeanor is overwhelming. The fact that she can’t emulate Carrie, or in actuality won’t, is the driving force of her depression.

The inability to reject conformity is a central theme throughout Jillian. At one point, Megan is so overwhelmed by the sameness of her life and job, she contemplates suicide. Jillian’s adoption of a rescue dog is a blatant attempt at recuperating the dominant image of domesticity from her actual single motherhood. However, it’s Jillian’s toddler son, Adam’s personification of conformity’s adverse effect, that is the most compelling.

Adults frequently deem Adam’s behavior as aberrant. As one example, he and two other little girls pretend to be a family. Rather than choosing to be a human member of the family, Adam decides he is the dog. This startles the girls and the daycare teacher who removes Adam and calls his playing “perverse” (115). Butler unequivocally renders conformity’s insidious demand for standardization. Especially effective in indoctrinating children in the ways of uniformity and single-mindedness.

Jillian’s struggles also stem from an inequitable and unsympathetic society. Her problems are shrouded by a falsity delivered by low wages, hyper-consumerism, and religion’s thundering fictions. Despite her employment, she can infrequently afford rent, food, utilities, and daycare. Jillian never blames capitalism or questions why the cost-of-living outspends her regular paycheck. Instead, she finds comfort in false-consciousness and the bogus safely promised by the American dream and organized religion.

Incapable of questioning the inability to afford all her basic needs or rejecting the church ladies’ judgment, she believes she and Megan “are so lucky. We could have been working at, you know, a steel mill” (103). Butler strategically uses classism to exhibit Jillian’s ignorance. To Jillian, her identity as an office worker is a closer reflection of the American ideal and is preferable to a mill worker’s working-class status. Jillian fails to see her troubles as evidence that capitalist society is failing her, and almost everyone.

Jillian falls into the contemporary literary trend of depicting unlikable female characters enduring existential depression. A theme tiresome in its ubiquity and already explored in depth by Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Kushner, Mary Miller, and many other authors. Whereas The literary male asshole is an anti-hero cliché by this point, female characters are more often designed as a Jillian than a Megan, thereby preventing negotiation of dominant gender norms.

By juxtaposing the two characters, Butler problematizes the polemic and subverts the patriarchal requirement for women to always be happy. While many unlikable characters wallow in self-absorption stemming from their privilege, Butler eschews that with Megan’s middle-class typicality. Much like Jillian, she is doing everything she is supposed to do: this is precisely both their problems. Butler coyly asks her readers to consider whether their contentious reading of Megan and Jillian is a reaction to the character’s unlikability or the social inequalities they represent.

Jillian is a frank account of discontent. Evoking both sarcasm and empathy, Butler paints Jillian and Megan as harbingers of a relatable alienation. Their penchant for self-destruction is a depressing yet exacting criticism of modernity.

RATING 7 / 10
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