What Do Halle Butler’s Women Want?

Photo: Miranda Barnes

In 2017, at a party for the literary magazine Granta, a man from Knopf asked Halle Butler what she does. “A lot of people seemed to think I was someone’s drunk date or something,” Butler recalls, so she leaned into it, telling him she was a secretary. This wasn’t explicitly false — for a long time, Butler had been making a paltry living doing clerical work through a temp agency. But it was a blatant lie of omission. Halle Butler was one of the writers being honored by the magazine’s Best of Young American Novelists issue, alongside luminaries such as Ben Lerner, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Yaa Gyasi. Maybe the darkest horse in the herd, Butler had neither a literary reputation nor connections; Granta’s editors found her 2015 debut Jillian, a manic tragicomedy about two self-destructive office administrators, in their slush pile.

If you met Halle Butler today, you’d probably be in the same position as the man from Knopf: she wouldn’t tell you that she’s a writer. Instead, she might regale you with war stories from her terrible jobs (the time a supervisor took her crutches, made her hop around on a hurt foot, and then fired her because her hair looked bad), without mentioning the novel these stories inspired: The New Me, a comic psychodrama about an incompetent temp worker, which is out this month. A 33-year-old native of Bloomington, Illinois, who came of age in Chicago, Butler’s modesty reflects a Midwestern aversion to self-promotion that’s hardened by her loathing of money and status. “Careerism and consumerism are not necessarily great bedfellows with art,” she tells me, understating a point that she later makes more starkly: “I would never write for money. Because that’s gross. Because I hate money!”

It’s risky to make moral pronouncements like these to a stranger, especially one who is literally writing about you for money. But I feel less judged than held to account. I’m from the Midwest, too, and Butler — who has flyaway curls, a dark, formless sweater, and a face so angular it’s borderline cubist — reminds me of the aspects of New York that once galled me. Over tea in her snug Alphabet City apartment, she brings up the phrase “you sold your book,” which she finds repulsive, a naked embrace of commerce. I’d never heard anyone say “sold your book” before I moved to New York, but I say it now without thinking. Living in the orbit of blue chip galleries and the Big Five publishing houses, you get warped by their gravity, by the twinned chimeras of money and institutional validation. These days I rarely speak to anyone so genuinely indifferent to all of that.

Butler has spent her whole life prioritizing “personal freedom and art and expression and intuition.” In practical terms, this has meant eschewing a traditional career and working a series of menial jobs in exchange for the flexibility and brain space to pursue her writing. Butler has sold DVDs over the phone, washed dishes at a strip-mall café, answered phones in a doctor’s office, and done administrative work at banks, ad agencies, and conferences, all while co-writing two independent feature films (Crimes Against Humanity in 2014 and Neighborhood Food Drive in 2017) and publishing two novels.

Butler’s fiction is preoccupied by the conflict between individuality and contemporary capitalism, how the imperative to work for money domesticates passion and sucks meaning from our lives. With deadpan humor, her characters shred unimportant documents, assemble junk mailers (termed “welcome packets”), bristle on phone calls, and sublimate anger into violent fantasy. These are middle-class college grads, presumably white, who seem not to be in debt — the deck is stacked in their favor, but they can nevertheless only find degrading, suffocating work. Their commentary is withering: Millie, the disgruntled temp who narrates The New Me, observes that a co-worker is “wrapped up in some distraction so utterly meaningless that it should, if she reflected on it, shake her to her core.” The anti-hero of Jillian tells her boyfriend, “What? I’m in a dead-end job, this is what it means to be in a dead-end job. I face death.”

Imagine if Ottessa Moshfegh had been the head writer of a low-rent version of Girls, or if Whit Stillman and George Orwell co-wrote a gig-economy comedy of manners starring a jaded Emma Bovary, and you can sort of picture what Butler is up to. The women Butler writes are simultaneously neurotic and corporeal, interrupting their incandescent shame spirals to drunkenly vomit, burp, or scrub their “fetid cracks” in the shower. They’re smart but ungenerous (“she continues to be a thick strand in the malevolent web of my daily routine,” one says of another), and rightfully paranoid: their bosses are planning to fire them, their friends are all talking shit, and they have nothing to look forward to. From the frenetic mental chatter of people in crisis, Butler crafts a noxious brew of social anxiety and self-loathing, tempered only by her black humor and genuine affection for viciousness and disgust.

Writing about drones breaking their minds in the capitalist beehive is clearly personal to Halle Butler — she has worked their jobs and thought their thoughts. But in trying to parse how much of her work is explicitly political, I use the term “class warfare,” and she looks at me askance. “I’m going to smoke a cigarette,” Butler tells me, laughing, “and then I’ll answer your question about class warfare.” Her tone bends at the end, nasal and sardonic, without being mean. I ask if there’s a better term. “Yeah,” she says. “I think we can bring it way down.” Butler never returns to “class warfare”; instead, when she’s done smoking on her fire escape, she answers my question by pivoting to her own experiences. “In writing about what is upsetting to me personally,” she says, “anti-capitalist stuff just comes out.”

At an early age, Butler understood institutions and authority figures to be a threat to her individuality. In third grade, a teacher scolded her for reading out loud with “too much color” in her voice, from which Butler intuited that the purpose of school was to “learn how to defer and complete the worksheet.” She refused to do this, and her high-school GPA bottomed out at 1.9. After graduating, Butler enrolled at an art school in Cleveland to study drawing and printmaking, but that didn’t work, either. She dropped out and later transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — a less rigid institution — from which she graduated with a creative-writing degree in that dreaded Year of Our Lord, 2008.

Of entering the workforce during the Great Recession, Butler has little to say. “It was pretty similar to my experiences of everything else, in that it just wasn’t working out.” For her whole life, she had felt precarious, rejected, and unsuccessful, so the recession didn’t rock her — she had never assumed she would have a career-track job, anyway. But this didn’t make earning money more palatable. Keeping the seat warm at various desk jobs incubated the kind of boredom that liquefies brain matter, and she filled her hours by shopping online, googling “people who I felt had slighted me at parties,” and ostentatiously listening to Zizek lectures. “I know I need to stuff these envelopes and I’ll do it,” she would think, “but I cannot believe that this is what the rest of my life is going to be like.”

Stalked by this dread, Butler decided that she had to write a novel before she was 25, so she saved a little money, quit her job as an administrator in a doctor’s office, and spent the last month of her 24th year writing the first draft of Jillian. A little baffled, I clarify that she wrote a novel in a month to prove to herself that she should pursue a writing career, and she corrects me: “No, I wasn’t thinking of it as a career.” I should have known. If critical acclaim translated to financial success, Jillian’s publication might have liberated Butler from bouncing between office jobs, but it didn’t. Instead, the novel gave her exactly what she sought: affirmation that she was a writer.

When I first emailed Butler, I asked for lists of what she’d been reading when she wrote Jillian and The New Me. They’re eclectic: Patricia Highsmith, mythology, pickup artist forums, Bukowski, tracts from the occult bookstore, Joyce, Charlotte Brontë, true-crime, Google results for “how to feel better,” Jean Rhys, and the Ask a Manager blog. But she also notes that art school — and its emphasis on learning to “observe and relax and evoke accurately” — perhaps influenced her more than reading. This makes sense. Butler’s exquisite rendering of familiar, distressing thought processes is perhaps the standout element of her fiction. Her novels echo the best of contemporary autofiction, but Butler avoids that genre’s pitfalls: the studied precociousness, the preening, and the inbent focus on frustrated creatives.

As another major influence, Butler cites the TV show, Columbo, a ’70s detective drama about a scrappy police lieutenant thwarting wealthy and arrogant murderers. Butler likes Columbo’s “torches and pitchforks” class politics — the perpetual humiliation of the rich at the hands of a blue-collar detective — but her own fiction is less sanguine about the triumph of labor in the post-recession age. Ten years after the stock market’s fateful swan dive, scores of millennials still feel its effects: the recession gutted their young adulthood, leaving them with Sisyphean debts, a string of gigs rather than a steady career, and a sense of having been lied to about the nature of adult life. To be sure, Butler’s protagonists are better off than most, but they nonetheless embody an experience familiar to many of their generation: being under-engaged at work, condescended to, and financially unstable. They’re not building a career or a family or even pursuing hobbies on the side — they’re just subsisting and wondering why the future they were promised has never arrived.

Butler clarifies that the happy ending for her characters would not be career success, but rather discovering a sense of personal meaning. (This is part of why her novels are rooted in Chicago rather than New York: the New York happy ending, Butler insists, would be inevitably careerist.) And while Butler has long found personal meaning in her writing, she has suddenly found professional success, too. By her own standards, this puts her in a somewhat compromised position. After all, even though she didn’t write The New Me with the intention to make money — and in fact wrote it as an “indictment of bourgeois ideology” — she’s now living off her book advance (plus some cash from adjuncting at Columbia) in one of the most expensive cities in America. Butler isn’t self-flagellating or defensive about the appearance that she’s now mingling art with commerce, maybe because she doesn’t assume it will last. “I still think I might temp again,” she says, “as a way to take pressure off of writing for money.” She then reminds me once more that writing for money is something she thinks “one ought not ever do.”

Admittedly, the idea of Butler returning to temp work bums me out. But then I think of Columbo sauntering around in a rumpled trench coat, asking faux-naive questions of his wealthy suspects. In the midst of condescending to him, these assholes always hang themselves with sloppy mistakes. “You can really identify with him if you’re working in a shitty job,” Butler says. “If you spend a large amount of your time being depersonalized, you can say, ‘Yes, I might have fucked-up, messy hair, but I am watching you.’”

I imagine Butler at the Granta party claiming to be a secretary, or answering phones again after her book money runs out, and I’m relieved that she’s there, observing. After all, at the end of each episode, Columbo puts the rich guy in handcuffs; at the end of Butler’s tedious jobs, the system that put her there ends up on the page.

Halle Butler Writes About Women Who’ve Soured on Ambition