Working titles? Authors who take on the 9-to-5
World of work is often perceived as dull and dreary – but that’s not always the case
Considering the ubiquity of the work experience in our lives, novels that focus on the working life do not crowd the shelves of bookshops.
The Cambridge dictionary defines work as an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical energy to do, usually for money. Physics defines work as moving a force over a given distance which rings true for all us worker bees who daily move forces over vast distances in a sisyphean effort to make a living. Jerome K Jerome stated: “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” Honoré de Balzac wrote that all happiness depends on courage and work.The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said that “work is the only practical consolation for having been born’’.
Douglas Coupland has declared the nine to five as barbaric and thinks that one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we now view child labour in the 19th century. He has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace and his literary works such as Generation X, JPod and Microserfs all revolve around smart and creative young people struggling with the demands of the corporate world.
The world of work is tainted by being perceived as being dull and dreary and to depict it using prose can prove a project too stultifying for a novelist to dedicate a few years to its depiction. Considering the ubiquity of the work experience in our lives, novels that focus on the working life do not crowd the shelves of bookshops. When a novelist can explore heightened worlds innervated with psychological tension the mundane terrain of the water cooler and a poor performance appraisal can seem a turgid option.When there’s war, heartbreak, murder, fictitious future worlds, class struggle, familial discord and clever plots aplenty why would any fiction writer preoccupy himself with the nine to five?
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, heads east to learn the bond business but, instead of office politics, the novel pulsates with high drama and extravagant parties. The odd sentence appears in the novel to confirm that Nick has a job: “Up in the city, I tried for a while to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock, then I fell asleep in my swivel chair.”
Yuval Noah Harari the author of Sapiens recently predicted that most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. He writes that as artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. If a world of post-work awaits us future generations can learn about the nine to five through works of fiction which will stand as a testament to the world of work. Reading most contemporary fiction one might assume that real life was something that went on outside of working hours. The following novels put work firmly where, in the majority of people’s lives it belongs – in the middle.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
All jobs entail tedium and toil but the depiction of the work environment in a regional tax-processing centre on the outskirts of Peoria, Illinois, takes brain-crushing boredom to a new level of pain. One of the characters’ remarks that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is”. There is a stunning passage about men on a work break, standing around talking about nothing in particular, but it nails the condition of bleak office-life with definitive accuracy.Wallace focuses on an assortment of misfits, eccentrics and outsiders who come to work at the I.R.S. and work as accountants, pushing paper and numbers in a generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation”.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Ever since Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000 there has been a vogue for books that take us behind the scenes into the intoxicating world of restaurant work. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel is a poetic coming-of-age story about a young woman, Tess’s, experience working as a waitress in a Union Square Cafe, negotiating both New York and a new world of tastes and desires. Her descriptions of the aftermath of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle are rendered with poetic dazzle.Unwelcome daybreak with its ensuing horror is “a dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows”, and “sunrise came like an undisclosed verdict”. Danler’s description of the panic of the unannounced health department inspection will resonate will all workers who have lived through similar situations. The narrator distills from her experience of her working life some philosophical truths including that “ a certain connoisseurship of taste,a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet”.
Personal Days by Ed Parks
When Ed Parks was let go after New Times Media took over The Village Voice he wrote this novel channelling the pre-layoff atmosphere of dread and anxiety into witty prose. Personal Days unfolds in three parts: Can’t Undo, Replace All and Revert to Saved, all familiar from Microsoft Word. He employs the language of computer software to narrate the happenings in the archipelagos of cubicle clusters while lambasting the lingo of corporate speak. Parks has said that this is “a layoff narrative” for our times.
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Daniel Underwood the narrator of this novel is a 26-year-old aspiring code writer, an affable insomniac who tells the story through his online journal Daniel@microsoft.com. Daniel and his fellow “microserfs” lead lives of frantic tedium tethered to their computer screens for 15 hour days, living on junk food and obsessing about Bill Gates. The novel makes a prescient point that “machines really are our subconscious” in this entertaining depiction of life as a computer techie in the early days of the technological revolution.
London and the South-East by David Szalay
Thoreau’s observation that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation finds embodiment in the character of Paul Rainey, the anti-hero of this sharply written satire on the modern workplace. He is an ad salesman with a company engaged in the increasingly profitless business of selling advertising space in trade magazines whose only subscribers are the advertisers themselves. The novel’s evocations of the day-to-day textures of the workplace, the routines, rivalries, allegiances, resentment and camaraderie, the lunch hours in the pub, the Monday morning postmortems of weekends. Paul’s dissatisfaction with his life lived in a sapping fog of alcohol and automation is brilliantly conveyed by Szalay: “Lying in his tepid bed, wheezing shallowly, eyes shut, ticker fluttering, his head a tightening knot of pain, he is once more sentient of his self, and his situation.” This novel is compulsively readable; Szalay’s prose and darkly comic tone make this a classic of the genre.
50 Jobs Worse Than Yours by Justin Racz Satirist
Justin Racz has spanned the globe to find 50 jobs that can only instil gratitude in any worker complaining about the difficulty of his job.This mini-book with 50 jobs and 50 photos showcases occupations from silly to gross, tedious to terrifying and may serve to dispel all work woes and take the blue out of Mondays, at least until it rolls around again.
No Time For Work by George Ryan
In the humorous tradition of Myles na gGopaleen, Ryan’s comic novel’s narrator is a newly qualified teacher who along with his friend Cecil Chuckleworth do all in their power to avoid work.They manage to outwit headmasters, school inspectors, parish priests and publicans with their escapades in an effort to live the dream, getting paid for sipping porter. The misadventures and comic capers will raise a smile with any reader who has navigated the Irish education system; Ryan writes that “long ago I discovered that teaching is an easy way of earning a living provided that one does not make the mistake of actually teaching.”