The great American (office) novel

Thirteen fictional perspectives on your 9-5
By JAMES PARKER  |  June 6, 2008


I. They are coming regularly now, like buses, like bulletins — the great office novels of the 21st century. In 2007, it was Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (Little, Brown). The year before that it was Max Barry’s Company (Doubleday). This year, our office novelist is Ed Park, a founding editor of The Believer, whose Personal Days is published this month by Random House. They are all comedies, these books, because office life is always a comedy, even when you feel like shooting yourself — and perhaps especially then. And like a product in successive stages of development, each corrects the minor faults of its precursor: the occasional frivolity of Barry’s corporate satire is redeemed in Ferris’s treatment of depression, cancer, and murder, while Ferris’s more onerous bass tones are delightfully relieved by the linguistic hijinks of Park.

When the perfect office novel is finally written, will the office as we know it cease to exist? Vanish, as it were, in a puff of copier toner, its spell broken? All signs point to yes: even as the genre approaches its acme, an end-times recession looms. These books may memorialize office culture as we know it. The single general criticism I would make, and that very tenderly, is that they’re all a little bit too long. I mean, come on — we haven’t got all day here. There’s work to be done.

II. Your boss comes padding over to your cubicle and says, “I think this one might be right in your wheelhouse.” Swiftly you parry: “Looks interesting,” you say, “but this kind of thing — it’s really more Roger’s bailiwick than mine.” The outcome of this exchange, this attempt to get you to do something, will be determined by the relative strength of metaphor and counter-metaphor. In his “wheelhouse,” you are the captain of a tramp steamer, salt in your whiskers, rope-roughened hands on the wheel, half-drunk and game for anything. In your “bailiwick,” you are a bailiff in Tudor England, a sober enforcer scrupulously observing the boundaries of your Crown-appointed authority. Why all these metaphors? Because the blank face of the office breeds metaphors. You can feel them generating around you in the dryness, electrically: office life is a game, a martial art, a war, an experiment, a prison. It’s an experiment performed inside a prison, by martial artists, during a war. Finally, though, the office transcends all of these and floats off into the empyrean of pure symbol, because nothing so satisfies the metaphorical requirements of the office as . . . another office.

III. I am writing this in an office. If you are reading it in an office, we might as well be sitting next to each other.

IV. The young man in sales was escorted out of the building for looking at porn on his computer. My inbox holds a demon, a spammer who speaks to me in brimstone whispers of gambling, penis enlargement, and discount jewelry. “The craving in her eyes, wow” (a subject heading, this past week). This is the id’s revenge: thwarted and banished by the office’s norms of social hygiene, by the cagey banter and the harassment training, it seethes in again through the back channels. No escape. Libidinous recoil shivers the stale air. Tread carefully, for the dead carpets are bristling with lust.

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