"Take This Job and Write It"
From the upcoming New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Schuessler on work novels:
Heyyy—I'll take it!™
With the arrival of postwar prosperity, the literature of working-class struggle gave way to the literature of middle-class disillusion. In novels like Sloan Wilson’s “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” work isn’t a tool of social redemption but a graveyard of individual dreams — often, as in the case of Yates’s Frank Wheeler, the dream of being an artist. It’s a theme the literary novel hasn’t been able to shake. Blue-collar misery has continued to inspire powerful fiction, whether Raymond Carver’s stories about laconically depressed waitresses and mechanics or Russell Banks’s portraits of violently self-destructive millworkers and snowplow drivers. But these days, it seems, the really unhappy people are working in offices.
Take, for example, the characters in Joshua Ferris’s dark satire “Then We Came to the End” (2007), set in a Chicago advertising agency caught in the throes of layoffs and water-cooler paranoia, and Ed Park’s “Personal Days” (2008), which unfolds in a similarly depopulating Manhattan cubicle farm. In reality, these satires of late-capitalist office life have less to say about actual work than about the bureaucratic rituals and distractions surrounding it: the joke PowerPoint presentations, the endless forwarding of stupid YouTube videos, the proliferation of Orwellian corporate jargon. In this vision, a job may provide a kind of grim life-boat camaraderie, along with a paycheck, but the work itself is meaningless unto mendacious: a metaphor for the lies and illusions that underlie our economy, if not our civilization. In Ferris’s novel, the agency’s big last-minute assignment — to create a humorous campaign for a shadowy breast-cancer awareness group — is itself a joke. In Park’s novel, the company’s actual business isn’t worth specifying at all.