I saw Halle Butler read recently, and she kicked off the introduction to her first novel, published by Curbside Splendor, with a line something like, “This book is about a girl who is obsessed with hating her co-worker. And that’s all that happens.”
The girl’s name is Megan, the hated co-worker’s name is Jillian. The book begins like this:
“Jillian was in the rapture of one of her great musings.
‘But what I really want is to be a personal assistant or go door to door and help people get organized. Not, like, as a psychologist, but I might be good at that, too. More like helping people get the right bins and sort through their stuff. Just go in and help people get organized.’
‘You really like organizing?’ Megan asked. Megan was not listening. She pronounced it flatly. ‘You really like organizing.'”
I bought the book hoping that Megan, the girl who obsesses about hating the co-worker, will turn out to be much crazier and more pathetic than the co-worker, Jillian. Nail the right voice, and you could do great things with this kind of backwards, outer-focused way to tell someone’s story. And it was partially the case. Megan, who is 24, quickly reveals herself to be lost and insecure, jealous of her friends’ successes, smoking and drinking too much, whining to her boyfriend, taking poisonous hangover shits, suffering embarrassing accidents, and so on.
Butler also has a knack for the horrors of office life. Here’s the description of that endless micro-nightmare, the communal mini-fridge:
“The microwave beeped in the background. The microwave was in the closet where they kept drug samples, and it sat atop of the mini-fridge. People used the mini-fridge to store both lunches and biological samples, side by side. Megan did not like to use the mini-fridge or the microwave. She did not like to think about how the heat from the microwave might combine the side by side contents of the mini-fridge.”
It’s funny, but the existential horror of the young person upon entering the workforce and discovering its textureless banality—the biological samples are right next to your lunch, and no one cares—is meaningful. Megan is facing the blank wall of either successfully entering corporate America, as her friends are doing, or failing and doing mind-numbing clerical work. Two bad choices many of us have faced. There’s a moment of perfect satire in this vein when Carrie, a loathed young-corporate-creative character that Megan is jealous of, is showing photos of a llama her boss bought from a homeless guy (presumably a stuffed llama), which Carrie thinks is hilarious. Megan knows enough to be aware of how the story shows Carrie’s privilege, and disgusted by it.
However, the overall premise wasn’t what I hoped it would be. The narration is third-person omniscient (despite that it sounds mostly like Megan) and spends equal time following Jillian as a character in her own right, as well as jumping into a few other people’s heads along the way. The point, I think, was to show us that Jillian and Megan’s two downward spirals resemble each other, and that both characters are equally trapped. But humanizing Jillian sort of killed the humor.
I also had problems with Jillian’s character. She was a single mother written by someone who seemed to have no idea what taking care of a five-year-old is like. Jillian comes home with her child, parks him in front of the TV and goes to peacefully make phone calls. Oh ha ha, sure she does. Jillian cleans while the child doesn’t harass her. The child asks for dinner and then seems to eat it without difficulty or requiring assistance. Or then there was this brief, gloriously passive sentence: “Adam was put to bed.” If fucking only. Jillian is supposed to be a narcissistic, neglectful mother….but even they get interrupted when they’re on the telephone.
There’s also the little problem that a single mother with financial troubles and a crappy job who self-medicates with inane positivity, surface piety and cute cat photos, as Jillian does, is not nearly as annoying (to me at least) as the 25-year-old hipster girl who thinks making fun of her is funny. That Megan-ish take on Jillian seemed itself unaware of its own privilege.
In the end, both characters crash and burn without much really happening, which had a certain futile aplomb.