What I liked best about Halle Butler's debut novel, Jillian (published by Curbside Splendor in February 2015), is how completely identifiable all aspects of the novel are to my own life and circumstances, as I imagine many of the Millennial generation will agree. There's something unique to the particular time and place of the story, especially with respect to the younger of the two main characters, a situation which begs to be considered as deeply as Butler has managed.
It's something, too, that I sense other generations might not so quickly identify with, as a Gen Xer friend of mine has noted his frustration with aspects of the novel. I'll explain this idea in more detail momentarily, and moreover what I believe is primarily attributable to the possible generational divide (though I believe most sane people will love this book despite -- or perhaps because of -- its often bleak overtones).
At the heart of this story is the eponymous Jillian and the ridiculous, often very unnecessarily so, life she leads -- constantly scrutinized through the mercurial lens of her coworker and fellow receptionist, Megan. Both women work in a gastroenterologist office in a Chicago-area hospital. Each has yet to do and achieve the kinds of things they probably once longed for, Jillian because of her shortsightedness and affinity for expedient solutions and Megan for her morose worldview and compulsion to discern the root causes of her unrest as located externally and not internally.
If Jillian is the story's center then Megan exists in her orbit, arguably in the same role as a primatologist examining the life of a chimpanzee. Their relationship is built upon the artful contrivance of workplace decorum, neither caring to get to know the other in any social way beyond the requisite daily interactions put upon them by their proximity and shared responsibilities. There's something undeniably similar to one or another Marxist critique of employment in a capitalist society, neither worker able to socialize with people they'd prefer to under normal circumstances. (Interestingly, neither worker having much interest in socializing with people in general -- Jillian for her extreme sense of entitlement and self-absorption, and Megan for her misanthropy.)
Butler's prose style is to me, in a word, satisfying. Her dialogue simply rolls off the page and into my mind's eye, without a hint of anything herky-jerky. I'm always annoyed by dialogue that makes the hair on my neck stand on end and question for a minute that I'm immersed in a story. I think it's one of her great strengths as a writer and, though I confess I haven't yet seen the film Crimes Against Humanity for which she wrote the screenplay, I am sure she easily pulls off the kind of character-rich dialogue needed to make a film cohere on screen (conversely, I watched Unbreakablelast night for some reason; perhaps subconsciously to see the precise opposite of good dialogue).
Another fantastic element of this novel is how carefully constructed the characters are. Each feels like someone you've known at some point in your life, and none of them more so in my mind than Jillian herself. She is, as I give away in the title, so call it a spoiler even though it's a characteristic revealed on page one anyway, that person you know and hate. She is the person constantly, perhaps due to some form of emotional stunting or immaturity (or something far deeper than that), making the most expedient decision for the most immediate gratification. And as Butler spins a world of narrative inside her head you begin to "get it," whether you want to or not. That's not to say you agree with Jillian's peculiar life choices but you come to some form of detente with the character, you see her anxieties, her human frailties and you realize, though it might be condescending, in certain ways Jillian wasn't cut out for the world humans have contrived over the centuries. She was made for a world unburdened by rules and decorum. If she had only been granted that who knows how much better she may have turned out, or maybe an uncaring state of nature would have quickly done her in. Who can know for sure?
As for the idea of the generational quality of the novel, I'll put it like this: Megan's character (the one who could be classified as a "Millennial" in terms of her age) exhibits all the bitterness that comes with the feeling that, while you may very well be talented, having a talent is not enough. In modern times they call it "networking." Whatever the case, Millennials feel acutely we've been sold a lie, inasmuch as we were brought up thinking everyone IS special (because whether you buy it or not, everyone has something unique about them, so it's true in that sense) and were thus brought up to think being special and being talented at something you love are enough to be happy in life. Call this naive (because it is) and wildly out of touch with the reality of life post-high school (because it also is), but this was the foundation on which we were raised.
I'm not calling for a return to corporal punishment in the nuclear family household (or really any draconian forms of punishment that will keep the next generation from being knocked on their ass), what I'm calling for and what I see in the subtext of Jillian is more honesty in the way we raise our children, less hiding behind the things that make us uncomfortable. Yes, honesty is brutal, honesty forces you to explain in perhaps crude-seeming detail how human beings procreate, or that no matter how much you like your job there will be days you despise it, and plenty of people always hate the work they do and possibly always will, so it's important to find other means of pleasure than being defined by your job, money typically won't fill the void.
And these are the things that prove impossible for Megan to achieve, certainly in part due to her own (often hilariously so) bad attitude. But there can be no mistaking that not everything that's "wrong" with Megan has to do with internal deficits. She seems unfulfilled for reasons for the above mentioned reasons, for being smart, for being witty, for being all sorts of things society says are good personality traits, and yet despite all of it, seeing herself mired in tedious work as a receptionist in a place she hates and spins her wheels in, day after day and week after week. She has no other outlet for herself from which to derive pleasure, and her negative attitude seems only to help perpetuate the general lack she feels in her everyday life.
She's a de facto nihilist, frustrated by the success that seems to arrive so easily for other people, people she tacitly believes are far less talented than her, even while she's never expressed any interest in the work they do -- said work seeming wholly separate (but no less obnoxious) from whatever might, if she actually considered it, bring her pleasure of her own (as a hobby, etc.). They have what Megan does not, these enemies, real and imagined both. Carrie, a party-goer who travels in similar circles as Megan and her boyfriend, Bill, is a particular target of Megan's ire. Carrie probably would have been irritating to Megan for no other reason than she claims to love her job (and appears to be mostly sincere about it). But it's not just her gratification at work, Carrie also has success in the traditional ways people tend to admire and likewise envy. She's basically considered a prodigy in the realm of professional design and made some prestigious journal's "30 under 30" list, as she reveals without subtly in an early scene in the novel. Megan sees her as a fraud and shouts at one point, behind Carrie's back, "She's got no heart!"
And Carrie might not have heart, might be a fraud, but it's Megan's own obsession with Carrie's fraudulence that causes her unnecessary stress, just as her focus on Jillian for different reasons does the same. These people Megan loathes may indeed suck, but Megan does herself no favors by obsessing about their lives, their being allowed to life them, which if we use Jillian as an example, are likely to be more complex and challenging than Megan would be inclined to believe or truly care to know. It's a kind of narcissism that keeps Megan looking outwardly (and perhaps this is another thing characteristic in particular of Millennials, despite its being a very common general human characteristic, as well). The world doesn't revolve around Megan and she'd be happier finding pursuits that get her away from debilitating narcissism and back to a happier place, an honest place, a place where she can be whoever she wants to be to whatever extent that's truly possible.
From Online University Lowdown - Bob Einstein’s Literary Equations : Like the maths and sciences, the best, most thorough examples of literary criticism require painstaking exploration and a detailed report of the findings – all of which blogger Matt Rowan delivers.
From The New Dork Review of Books - Matt Rowan writes one of the best, most intellectually intense amateur book blogs out there. Definitely a blog to check out if you miss your college literature survey courses.