Oct/Nov 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

Fiction from the Workplace: Two Recent Gems

Review by Dennis Kaplan

Then We Came to the End.
Joshua Ferris.
Little, Brown and Company. 2007. 385 pp.
ISBN 978-0316016391.

Personal Days.
Ed Park.
Copper Canyon Press. 2008. 241 pp.
ISBN 978-0812978575.

I am not the first editor of a workplace anthology to puzzle over the scarcity of fiction about work. In the acknowledgments to his 1977 collection, On the Job, editor William O'Rourke revealed that the seed for his project was planted by the poet Alan Dugan's remark that, "there weren't many [stories about work] since so few American writers worked." It is not clear whether O'Rourke fully embraced this conclusion, but in the book's introduction, he made the case that the writer does not generally fold into the work realm in the same way as the general population. He or she, "comes from wealth... becomes dry-docked in some slip of the academy... or... struggles." By definition, it would be the final group—the one that struggles—whose members would be most likely to be acquainted with work as most of us know it. But, also by definition, this is the group whose writing is least likely to see publication. As a result, it becomes impossible to know how much is actually written about work; we can only quantify how much has been published. That amount will be directly proportional to the perception of publishers as to how work themes will fly in the marketplace, and the evidence would suggest—in both O'Rourke's time and the present—that their answer is... not very high.

So when quality fiction about work slips through, it definitely bucks the trend. In the last few years, a couple of notable gems have appeared, clearly worthy of note: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, and Personal Days by Ed Park. The workplace of both these books is starkly contemporary: not cotton fields, or slaughter houses, or cacophonous factories, but modern, temperature-controlled, ergonomically correct cubicles. The angst of the workers we encounter is not the doing of mean bosses, or horrific conditions, or anything we could confidently nail down as oppression. These comfortable, well-paid workers hardly see themselves as rebels; their emblem would not be a fist and lightning bolt, but more likely a Toyota Prius. Nonetheless, an ethereal notion of workers' solidarity does come into play, promulgated by the odd quirk in both books of delivering their narrative, at least in part, in the first person plural.

In Ferris's book, this begins right with the title, Then We Came to the End. If this sounds like some clunky, self-conscious device, it does not come off that way. At times the effect is lyrical as we hopscotch through the collective consciousness of a group of people who all share the same daily trap. The setting is a modern ad agency in the midst of a wave of layoffs. The boss, Lynn Mason, is depicted as sympathetic, which does not change the fact that she is feared. At one point she challenges the staff to come up with a new ad that would make a cancer patient laugh. The question as to who would pay for such a thing is a mystery that floats in and out of the narrative, but Ferris's real target is the daily grind:

There was so much unpleasantness in the workaday world... [J]ust the idea that part of the weekend had to be dedicated to getting the oil changed and doing the laundry was enough to make... us... want to lie down in the hallway and force anyone dumb enough to remain committed to walk around us... The cleaning crews, needing to vacuum, would inevitably turn us on our sides, preventing bedsores, and we could make little toys out of runs in the carpet, which, in moments of extreme regression, we might suck on for comfort.

The workers incorporated in Ferris's "we" are not portrayed as victims. They are too sophisticated for that—ever aware that they are better off than most and that they have been in full control of their choices. But this does not stop them from feeling trapped, a frequent topic of their ruminations:

We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.

But what are the consequences of this choice? Does the daily tradeoff of time for money alter us in ways we never intended?

We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves. Should we quit? Would that solve it? Or were those qualities innate, dooming us to nastiness and paucity of spirit?

Ferris is particularly adept at picking up on the way even trivial exchanges in the workplace can turn us into liars and sneaks, even when we would rather act otherwise. At one point, in the middle of a meeting, the sympathetic boss, Lynn Mason, registers a perfectly benign complaint about having to wait all day for the cable guy to show up:

We weren't sure how to answer that one. An honest response would reveal that there had been a day in our dark pasts when we had taken a morning off and stayed home to await the cable guy instead of coming in to work. We didn't want her to think we'd ever choose cable over work. Work was what allowed us to afford cable.

Ed Park's Personal Days also examines the question of what work makes us become. He even seems to suggest that it turns us into boring people. In one scene he hones in on the very recognizable hyperbole of workplace dialog:

That's crazy!—It was an insane idea.—I'm so crazed right now I can't even think.

Any minor eccentricity could be deemed wild or out of control. Such language convinced them they were more interesting than they suspected they really were. It was crucial that they never contemplated the possibility of their inherent, overwhelming dullness.

Like Ferris's book, Park's Personal Days is set in a contemporary office also facing layoffs. The location is an out-of-the-way street in Manhattan, situated between a "Good Starbucks" and a "Bad Starbucks." The boss is a little less sympathetic than Ferris's Lynn Mason. (He's called "the Sprout" for no other reason than that his name is Russell, which sounds like Brussels, as in the vegetable.)

Park's target is not only the culture of work, but that whole adjunct industry of business whizzes and self-help gurus whose writings cheer us on from the sidelines, offering wisdom on how to game the system and prevail. After an employee named Jill is laid off, a notebook is found under her desk, filled with quotes from exactly such writings. At first the staff takes this as Jill's pathetic attempt to stave off the inevitable. But eventually they conclude that Jill had a much higher purpose: the notebook was intended as a statement, something between found poetry and the kind of mockery that feeds on simply repeating the source. The volume becomes epic. The surviving co-workers refer to it as "The Jilliad" and read out loud from it daily:

Think of the office as an ocean liner. Are you the captain? A passenger? Or the person who plays xylophone for the lido deck band? —Climbing the Seven-Rung Ladder: The Business of Business, by Chad Ravioli and Khâder Adipose

Don't be the one who says, I told you so. Tell them so to begin with. Tell them often. —Office Politics 101, by Randall Slurry

Imagine you've just stepped into the elevator with the CEO of your company. Door closes. It's just the two of you. Every employee—never mind how high or how low—should have his or her Elevator Speech ready. Why not practice it in front of a mirror? Don't throw away an opportunity to shine. —Are You Going Up or Going Down? Learn How to Sell Yourself Every Time, by Dobbs Redondo

There is not much plot to Personal Days, but part of the joyride is in the succession of familiar moments held up for inspection: the awkward elevator encounter, the too-peppy email, the infuriating battles with computers. Park's primary weapon is humor, but the absurdities he throws at us evoke deeper questions: is this the only way? Are people really wired for this? In one minor but telling moment we witness a desk jockey named Laars trying to locate a file on his computer.

The next day, Friday, the Sprout asks Laars for a file from last year. Laars's system of folders is so byzantine, his naming conventions so idiosyncratic, and his memory so poor, that he often has to do a global search of all the contents on his computer if he's looking for a file more than a few weeks old. He tries to guess what word might spring up in the document title, then hits Search.

I don't understand, the computer says.

Reviewers have referred to both of these books as Catch-22s for the workplace. Ironically, such a book already exists, authored by the actual writer of Catch-22, Joseph Heller. Something Happened was first published in 1974 and was intended as a scathing look at the fading promise of post-war America. Its protagonist, Bob Slocum, like the we's and they's of the previous titles, spends much of his time desperately adrift in a sea of middle class comforts. If anything, Slocum is even more bitter: he hates work, has lost interest in his wife, and watches helplessly as his relationship with his teenaged daughter becomes so poisoned that she regularly informs him that she wouldn't mind if he died.

The title is really the answer to the implied question: "What happened?" Specifically, what happened to that younger, more hopeful version of himself who had "satisfactory erotic dreams... read the comic strips... said good-bye to my mother five mornings each week... was a hardy and impetuous patrol leader... [who] worked to earn merit badges..." What happened, of course, was life; we see this in many layers, and for Slocum, that life is intricately interwoven with work—its values, rewards and betrayals.

The astute critic might ask: so what? Why not write a book bewailing the weather, or the scarcity of solar eclipses? Work is not going away, and it is not work's fault if its requirements cannot always amuse us. My counterpoint would be that reflection always has value, especially when it concerns a largely unexplored realm that consumes so much human time and drama. Additionally, there is always the chance that reflection can lead to change. One poignant example would be Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which is widely regarded as having had an impact on the pure food laws voted through in the early part of the last century. Of course, it is one thing to legislate against rat parts in sausage, and quite another to legislate against angst.

Nonetheless, some have trod this ground, though admittedly in non-fiction rather than fiction. In her 1992 book, The Overworked American, economist Juliet Schor advances the argument that if the labor saving technology of the past decades had been applied to work time, rather than wages or profits, most Americans could be working a twenty-hour week at full salary. In Benjamin Hunnicutt's Kellogg's Six Hour Day, we learn of an experiment in workplace reform which arose from the most unlikely of sources—the goodness of an industrialist's heart. W. K. Kellogg, founder of the eponymous cereal company, firmly believed in the benefits of a thirty-hour workweek and from 1930 to 1985 this was the practice at Kellogg.

But we stray from fiction. Is more workplace fiction on the way? It would be nice to answer in the affirmative, but the market forces which mitigate against this have by no means gone away. In the previously mentioned On the Job, editor William O'Rourke did predict a new wave of workplace writing, and as we know, that did not come to pass. Or perhaps this is simply the half empty way of looking at it. The optimistic version might go, O'Rourke did get it right, but simply set his horizon a few decades too soon.


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