We eat local, we shop local, and we drink local. But do we read local? If Jillian is any indication, we definitely should. In her debut novel, author Halle Butler grasps the colorful, fraying threads that run through her characters lives and yanks hard, not out of cruelty, but out of a delightfully morbid curiosity.
The story is set in Chicago, although Butler has created a landscape of the character’s minds that feels just as real as the banal gastroenterologist’s office and the small, shared apartments they inhabit. A bubbly single mom armed with positive mantras, Jillian has become the object of a laser-like fury from her coworker Megan, who can’t, or won’t, see these qualities for the defense mechanisms they really are. Most of the characters in the story wear a similar set of blinders when looking at one another, unable to look up from their own frustrations long enough to find the connection they crave.
Butler writes like a fly on the wall, recording every strange and hilarious moment of her unsuspecting characters in exacting detail, right down to the sweat of their ass cracks. The wacky inner monologues behind Megan’s deadpan provide so much comic relief, and the book is peppered with absurd little moments. On the other end of the spectrum, it was almost hard to not whip the book across the room when things started to unravel, knowing that you’d have to watch Megan and Jillian flounder until they tire themselves out.
In their shrunken social circles, the few supporting characters in our ladies’ lives are written with just as much care and complexity as the protagonists themselves. Jillian’s ex-boyfriend and the father of her son makes a brief appearance by phone, and from only a few lines of dialogue we get a clear outline of the unhealthy dynamics of their relationship. Megan’s live-in boyfriend Randy appears often and like most other peers in her life, he comes across as someone tired of orbiting a strange planet on which he will never be able to land.
Of course, no discussion of minor characters would be complete without mentioning Elena. In stark contrast to the others’ wobbly sense of self, Elena is poised and calculating. Coming across as Jillian’s mature and helpful friend from church, we soon realize that she keeps careful account of her good deeds, and relishes the self-appointed job of collecting on those debts. Although it has a decidedly moral component, her inner Jillian hatred gives Megan’s contempt a run for her money.
Our characters’ identities come into sharp focus against a social backdrop in two vivid scenes. Megan is inevitably the odd one out at a backyard house party, and her cringe-worthy inner commentary betrays a really lonely experience. While Jillian’s instinct to help Elena at a church function seems partly motivated by guilt, her authentic desire to be part of the group makes us wince even harder as a group of snide ladies shut down her efforts.
After spending time with Megan and Jillian in all their glorious weirdness and insecurity, these moments brought me to that sweet spot in fiction for which so many strive. I felt a real empathy for these imaginary women. While “relatable” can be an overrated virtue in literature, anyone who has felt stuck or stranded in the current economic world will not be sorry to find company in these pages. I think in creative writing we should seek out these moments where our instincts pull us over the fine line between real, and really well written.
Switching between the inner and outer worlds of the characters in this book made for a well-paced and relatively quick read. The dialogue felt natural, and there were only a few moments when I was ready to move on to the next thought. I did wonder at times if the way we write about intimacy has changed in the past few years. I wondered if the confessional style of social media has any effect on the boundaries that make inner life precious and distinct, favoring tell-all explosions over gentle examinations of thought. It seems the secret is good structure and a sense of humor. With clear and concise prose, Butler articulates a vast range of emotions from frustration, fear, and self-loathing, without ever letting them congeal on the page.
Jillian was published by Curbside Splendor, the Reader’s “Best Chicago Indie Publisher 2014” whose recent works including Losing in Gaineseville by Brian Costello, and Once I was Cool by Megan Stielstra. Curbside continues to highlight the best of Chicago’s writing community with the upcoming Dime Stories, from New City columnist Tony Fitzpatrick.
Curbside Splendor Publishing
(1st Edition) February 17th, 2015