Halle Butler: ‘I didn’t understand how to be excited about getting a job'

A sharp-eyed satirist of the banalities of office life in her novels The New Me and Jillian, the US author talks about the frustrations of work and finding success through writing about failure

Sometimes, writers chime with the times in ways more serendipitous than they could have imagined, let alone planned; and the results can be a mixture of blessing and curse. When Halle Butler named the woman she describes as “the villain” of her novel The New Me “Karen” and its protagonist “Millie”, she hadn’t any particular connotations in mind. “It’s very strange. Karen, and Millie the millennial, it’s like Caspar Goodwood or something,” she remarks wryly, referring to the wholesome suitor in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. “It’s almost too direct.” She pauses. “I mean, she is a little bit of a Karen.”

She is, in the sense that that frequently contentious shorthand sobriquet – seen by some as a way of simply mocking women, and by others as a way of exploding privilege and the abuse of power – denotes officiousness, self-importance, entitlement. But in The New Me, it also comes with a healthy side order of pathos. Karen is a receptionist at the designer furniture showroom at which Millie finds herself temping, but imagines herself to be on a corporate ladder that will eventually lead to her running the company. For now, she restricts herself to finding fault with the way Millie collates promotional junkmail and requests that she time her bathroom breaks to align with her lunch-hour, unaware that those higher up the food chain find her laughable. Millie, meanwhile, simply tries to get through the days: “I wake up ill. I feel trapped in a loop. I stare at the big pile of clothing on the floor. I eat some dry cereal. I wash my armpits. I go to work. I think things on the train. I ride the elevator. I walk to Karen’s desk. I am either calm or hollow, hard to say.”

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