Banal Nightmare

A Novel

About the Book

A ferocious novel by one of the boldest voices in American fiction and the author of The New Me, the “definitive work of millennial literature” (The New Yorker)

“Butler has crafted a novel in which every character proves to be completely, uniquely crazy. Her perverse sense of humor should be studied and celebrated.”—David Sedaris

Margaret Anne “Moddie” Yance had just returned to her native land in the Midwestern town of X, to mingle with the friends of her youth, to get back in touch with her roots, and to recover from a stressful decade of living in the city in a small apartment with a man she now believed to be a megalomaniac or perhaps a covert narcissist.

So begins Halle Butler’s sadistically precise and hilarious Banal Nightmare, which follows Moddie as she abruptly ends her long-term relationship and moves back to her hometown, throwing herself at the mercy of her old friends as they, all suddenly tipping toward middle age, go to parties, size each other up, obsess over past slights, dream of wild triumphs, and indulge in elaborate revenge fantasies. When her friend Pam invites a mysterious East Coast artist to take up a winter residency at the local university, Moddie has no choice but to confront the demons of her past and grapple with the reality of what her life has become. As the day of reckoning approaches, friends will become enemies, enemies will become mortal enemies, and old loyalties will be tested to their extreme.

Banal Nightmare is filled with complicated characters who will dazzle you in their rendering just as often as they will infuriate you with their decisions. Halle Butler singularly captures the volatile, angry, aggrieved, surreal, and entirely disorienting atmosphere of the modern era.
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Praise for Banal Nightmare

“Halle Butler has crafted a novel in which every character proves to be completely, uniquely crazy. Her perverse sense of humor should be studied and celebrated.”—David Sedaris

“In Butler’s world, everyone hates each other, every day is excruciating in its mundanity, every thought is the beginning of an Escherian journey round and round in hell, and somehow the whole thing is unbelievably funny. With the force of an episode of marijuana psychosis and the extreme detail of a hyperrealistic work of art, Banal Nightmare attempts transcendence through anxiety and dissociation, nailing a series of contemporary characters—better pray you’re not one of them—to the wall.”—Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror

“This is a masterpiece, Butler’s best book yet. It burns with a wild, unforgiving fire, making most other novels seem vague and ho-hum in comparison. No feeling is skipped over. No thought is simplified. No idea is dumbed down. Like a knife dancing through air, it’s a manic, nerve-wracking read, painful and so weirdly funny. I felt gripped by it from beginning to end. . . . An unapologetic, totally original, modern marvel.”—Rachel B. Glaser, author of Paulina & Fran

Banal Nightmare is a blistering assault on contemporary pieties about art and love, an epic Woolfian tapestry of perfect comic rants, terrifying panic attacks, and, most gratifying of all, sincere attempts at human connection. This is the best, most ambitious book yet by one of my favorite writers.”—Andrew Martin, author of Early Work

“Brilliantly observed and unsparing, Banal Nightmare is an exhilarating, often-hilarious kaleidoscopic inquiry into contemporary relationships. With the comprehensive social gaze of Balzac and the cold logic of Renata Adler, Halle Butler conjures a latticework structure of life, rage, dark humor, and incalculable grace.”—Patrick Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace

“Butler writes with a bee-sting-sharp sense of humor and irony, and nothing is sacred, not Hillary Clinton, not Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before Congress. What’s most surprising is that this cooler-than-the-cool-kids novel actually has an emotional center that will make your pulse race. . . . A tart, irreverent rant of a novel that takes a sharp turn toward something more serious.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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Banal Nightmare


Margaret Anne (“Moddie”) Yance had just returned to her native land in the Midwestern town of X, to mingle with the friends of her youth, to get back in touch with her roots, and to recover from a stressful decade of living in the city in a small apartment with a man she now believed to be a megalomaniac or perhaps a covert narcissist. She was trying not to think about it, trying to have a decent time in her new life, but invariably some bleak thought would draw her back and then the memories would start, vivid, cinematic, relentless, like a brainwashing clip reel for a cult with an unclear mission statement.

It was summertime. She was currently sitting in the backseat of a car on a dark, damp evening, looking out of the rolled-down window, consciously relaxing her muscles by group. The streetlights illuminated round sections of the green maple leaves that formed a canopy over the street. The air smelled good, like clean mulch with subtle undertones of motor oil. The trees, the smells, the sounds, the sights, the breezes, all activated a primal sensation in Moddie, a sensation she felt between her solar plexus and crotch, a feeling that was somewhat similar to unwelcome sexual arousal. She relaxed her shoulders. Her arms. Attempted to avoid slipping back into her dreary memories as the car drove through the night.

The breakup had been precipitated by Moddie, who impulsively had sex three times with her coworker Toby. He was a colleague, not a superior, but treated Moddie like his underling. He was a foolish man. Toby was muscular and short with a vein that stood out on his forehead, and Moddie liked to publicly humiliate him with casual mockery. She knew no one liked him, and in the break room everyone said that he was “verbally abusive.” Moddie was in charge of sorting the mail and answering the phones, so she knew about his court-mandated anger management classes, which were on Thursdays.

After she and Toby had sex for the third and final time, Moddie sat on a park bench to read Walt Whitman. Nick had been out of town on some kind of artistic retreat, but he would be waiting for her when she got home. As she pretended to read the poems, Moddie realized that she had been effectively dead, without a single emotional or spiritual or intellectual stirring in her adult life, until this tyrannical little idiot, a man she had no respect for or interest in, had harangued her into touching his dick in the supply closet.

How cruel, yes, life could be.

The breeze stirred her bangs, and her heart. As a young person, she’d made a vow to live within the pulse of life and to avoid the death-in-life that the poets all said was worse than death itself. If she stayed with Nick, she would break that vow and continue to live this dead, boring life. She blamed a lot of her problems on Nick’s vanity. Moddie admired Uncle Walt, the crazy gay tree f***er, but she did not admire herself, a boring woman with trivial, boring problems. She walked from the park bench back to her desk, past the bullet-chipped storefront windows, weaving between broken glass and empty patterned dime bags, back to her seat in the lobby of the sleek and highly regarded educational nonprofit for underserviced youth, where she filed grant applications and acted as a liaison between administration, teachers (or rather “educators”—she never understood why this needed to sound like a euphemism), and community, and where she had to work as a kind of hostage negotiator for her boss, Tracy, who wanted the children to go do things like cheer up the craps corner with yarn bombs, insisting this would give them what she called “cultural capital,” another euphemism.

She got to her desk. And she sat and sat, dazed to the brim with richest nausea. Strong light came in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, dazzling her. If Toby had walked by, she might have projectile vomited on the center of her corporate-donated thirty-two-inch Retina display monitor.

She drove home. The nausea ripened into a dissociative state. She didn’t know what would happen when she opened the door to their apartment. Her movements were automatic. She was numb. It was the strangest she’d ever felt. It was as if she were inside an orb, watching as the actions of some other thing flowed through her. It was a dream. She was innocent. Of course, she felt guilty about the odious cheating, but she did not feel like she was about to begin a process of confession and repentance. In fact, that was unthinkable, because she was not sorry.

Her hand turned the knob of the front door, pushed, and the door opened on Nick lying flaccidly on the couch, not doing anything except looking at his phone. His brain was rotten, and all of his opinions were inherited, none of them spontaneous, completely rotten. His suitcases were dumped all over the floor. He had reheated and eaten all of the leftover chili, the chili that had taken her three hours to prepare, the chili she was planning to have, and he had left everything in the sink for her to wash. She did all of the laundry, cooked all of the meals, took out the trash, cleaned, shopped, paid the bills, all of it, he did none of it, she did all of it, holy god for ten years all of it. And what was Moddie making room for with all of these chores? These things took hours, meaning Nick took hours from Moddie, and what did he do with these hours, what great life of the mind was she aiding by giving him all of these hours? Looking at him with this thought in her mind made the blood rise up in her ears and made her feel faint, again. He even spoke to her in baby talk. Moddie’s lips were numb and it felt like she was hovering inches above the ground. She’d told him in the first year, please, anything but baby talk, but her handsome boy, he was always so very hungwy. Moddie had been standing over him as he lay on the couch texting for at least one minute, maybe two, each submerged in their own private narrative.

He was probably texting with that girl he’d met at an art fair who, according to him, had been “actually” quite encouraging of all the bad behavioral patterns and habits and attitudes of his that always dragged him deep down into a time-sucking catatonic depression that Moddie was left to deal with whether she wanted to or not, goddamn it, that bitch.

Nick looked up at Moddie and his lip involuntarily snarled like a mean old goopy Maltese. Moddie felt her spirit puke out in anger. The words came out like heavenly music, as if Christ himself had reached his hand down and put his fingers in her mouth and used her as a puppet to transmit his divine decree, that she break up with him that instant.

In the moment before she felt herself speak, her mind became clear and analytical like a man’s. Aside from a few compulsory and awkward concessions, they hadn’t f***ed in years. They didn’t have or want children, they didn’t have or want any large shared items like a house. The one time Moddie brought up marriage, Nick raised his eyebrows and said, “I don’t think so.” He told her she would make a terrible mother but said nothing after she handed him his peanut butter sandwich and said, “Oh, I don’t know, I think I’m doing an okay job.” He’d taken to saying things like “All men are more likely to be attracted to women in their twenties, because they just have better bodies and more open minds” and “When men and women break up in middle age it’s uniformly pathetic for the woman. Inevitably she goes on some humiliating journey of self-discovery, joins a gym, gets a fun and funky haircut and some dimwitted affirmational therapist, and all she can manage to snag is a beat-down old divorcé with a broken dick and some other woman’s children. Maybe he takes her on a few sad little vacations to Barbados. Maybe she wears a hot-pink bikini with her big ass cheeks hanging out. Maybe she gets a tattoo on one of her cheeks that says ‘YOLO.’ ” He started talking this way soon after Moddie turned thirty-one, insisting they were deep into middle age, fat, neutered, depressing, the walking dead, but Toby had said she had movie boobs, and Toby looked like a tiny Channing Tatum and he didn’t have any children or enough money to go to Barbados, so it turned out Nick wasn’t a genie who could see into the future, just a mean man, and realizing this did make a difference. She was no longer afraid of the endless gaping void of loneliness. She spoke the words that coursed through her—this just is not working.

Whatever tense cloud of energy that had been hovering in the room between them burst. Nick began to cry, and Moddie felt her whole heart and chest and self rush toward him, my poor sweet baby, I’m so, so sorry.

About the Author

Halle Butler
Halle Butler’s first novel, Jillian, was called the “feel-bad book of the year” by the Chicago Tribune. Her second novel, The New Me, was named a Best Book of the Decade by Vox and a Best Book of the Year by Vanity Fair, Vulture, the Chicago Tribune, Mashable, Bustle, and NPR, and the New Yorker called it a “definitive work of millennial literature.” She was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. More by Halle Butler
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