What has become of the office? Its small, mundane daily rituals, its smells – of over-boiled coffee, synthetic fabrics, other people’s perfume – the low hum of phone conversations and the whirring of the printer. To those of us who are still working from home, it feels like a faraway place, a half-forgotten memory, and to those who have returned it is utterly transformed: masked, distanced, hushed.
It’s a strange time to be appraising the workplace novel. Will things return to how they were before, or will we look back on our time of working long, gruelling hours in the office with relief, or even nostalgia? I wonder if books set in offices will make us wistful about some aspects of pre-pandemic life or if, instead, these narratives will act as a warning against returning to a working culture that felt, to many of us, unreliable and unstable.
Temping, the unnamed temp of Hilary Leichter’s novel Temporary informs us, is a “shorthand career” of “short tasks, short stays, short skirts”. In this short, surreal portrayal of peripatetic employment – which includes delivering mail, directing traffic, temping for a murderer, filling in for a ghost by opening and closing doors in a family home, and standing in for an extinct kind of barnacle – the absurdities of working life are exposed with deadpan humour.
“I love it when the temp becomes a barnacle,” Leichter tells me. “It’s my favourite job in the book but one for which I probably would not apply. I started writing it as a bit of a joke, and that section – the idea that when we destroy the planet, no one will be left to replace us – came to define the whole project.”
As a reflection of the instability of the 21st-century gig economy, Temporary is a truly contemporary work novel: part of a category of modern fiction that is forever expanding, despite the pandemic mothballing many offices this year. It’s unsurprising that the workplace looms large in fiction: discussions of its future are as pertinent as ever, with so many of us working remotely, amid calls for universal basic income and the four-day week. AI’s potential to replace us is also a persistent anxiety, especially with fears of mass unemployment in the wake of Covid. The world of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, in which humans are being outperformed by machines and some are denied education and career advancement, feels uncomfortably close to our own.
Rebecca Watson tells me since lockdown, people have told her that the office scenes in Little Scratch feel nostalgic
The white-collar workplace has long provided writers with inspiration, from the passive rebellion of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, who would “prefer not to”, to the entry of women into the office, explored in books such as Rona Jaffe’s 1958 The Best of Everything and the presciently unsatisfying magazine internship in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Nicholson Baker embraced the mundane in his account of the minutiae of one worker’s day in The Mezzanine, while colleagues formed a Greek chorus in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.
Its current manifestation is the fiction of the “bullshit job” – a term coined by philosopher David Graeber in his influential examination of pointless, psychologically destructive 21st-century work. In the 90s, the literary “brat pack” that included Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney critiqued the bland blankness of a society shaped by consumer capitalism; contemporary writers continue that legacy with dark, playful examinations of the lives of the “precariat”, working in an insecure gig economy where jobs are temporary, stability is an illusion and workplaces are the soulless sites of petty employee surveillance, imposing meaningless tasks that are the enemy of creative and emotional fulfilment.
And many of the resulting novels are very funny. In Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler paints a scathing picture of a millennial-targeted online media company: “Everything you said or did was probably meaningless and impermanent as well as potentially hugely significant; the effect was that you were both neurotically tetchy and quietly demoralised all the time.” Meanwhile, meetings are “almost totally pointless” and the website itself embarrassing to work for: “I deduced that smart people did not bother with this website, and I didn’t blame them.”
“My routine is always the same,” Edie, the heroine of Raven Leilani’s acclaimed debut Luster, tells us of her working day. “I dart from the train and immediately wash my hands in the office bathroom. I load up on the free hand lotion the publisher started putting out after it was revealed that the women in the company (a whopping 87 percent of the employee base) are still making less than the men. The hand lotion has slightly increased morale.” Edie works in children’s publishing (“I call meetings where we discuss why bears are over, and why children only want to read about fish”), but spends a lot of her time either browsing the internet or sleeping with her colleagues. There is one other black woman working there, who is after her job. She knows that, career-wise, she is on borrowed time, but doesn’t seem overly distressed by this. Really, she wants to be an artist.
These heroines are far from satisfied in their work. In Halle Butler’s The New Me, Millie is a temp. “The new offices and coworkers provide a nice illusion of variety,” she tells us. “Like how people switch out their cats’ wet food from Chicken to Liver to Sea Bass, but in the end, it’s all just flavored anus.” At the heart of The New Me is the pointlessness of work, how it results in a sort of spiritual death: “Back at my desk I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to come to this room and sit at this desk and slowly collect money.”
Unlike most contemporary work novels, Leichter’s Temporary makes no attempt at realism. Yet in its absurdity it hits on a kind of truth about the empty mores of contemporary office culture. No agency is going to send you to assist a murderer, but the killer’s words of encouragement to the temp could have come from any office conversation: “It’s not like you don’t have any experience … give yourself some credit, golly.”
“There are so many smart realist books about what it means to work today,” Leichter says. “I didn’t feel that I had anything to add to that conversation, but that I could say something about how it feels to work, how it feels like a funhouse. I wanted the feeling of disposability and vulnerability to guide the narrative to the most unbelievable places.”
Another temping novel is There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura. An unnamed woman, who we learn has suffered from career burnout (a malaise on the rise among millennials, according to Anne Helen Petersen’s recent nonfiction book Can’t Even), is assigned a job that involves sitting at a desk monitoring CCTV footage of a novelist experiencing writer’s block; he is also sitting at a desk, staring blankly at a screen. The emotional labour of her past career left a “hole” in the temp, and all she wants is an easy job that is close to her house, and requires “very little thinking”. She ends up taking a number of placements, including writing the copy on cracker packets and voicing the advertisements on buses, but is always frustrated in her desire for blank monotony: life continually intervenes.
In its quirky portrayal of each placement, There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job verges on magical realism. More experimental still is Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson, which follows one young woman through a single day using a stream-of-consciousness narrative; the woman’s fragmented inner thoughts are interspersed with, and intruded upon, by real-world occurrences and interactions.
For Watson’s protagonist, work is the site of an assault that left her traumatised. “The office routine is something that she relies on to essentially suppress the assault,” Watson says. Without a day job the narrator might have the time and space to work through what happened to her; the tedium of repetitive work, in other words, is the enemy of psychological growth. “Particularly in administration, you’re going through, essentially, a groundhog day every single day,” says Watson. “Inspiration or diversion are impossible. Little Scratch is about the impossibility of finding meaning when the majority of your life is spent doing something that has no point.”
For a novel about trauma, Little Scratch is surprisingly funny, and despite the monotony of the tasks the protagonist undertakes, her inner voice crackles with life. Other contemporary novels – most notably, The New Me, but also Severance by Ling Ma, The Answers by Catherine Lacey, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – have been singled out by critics for a certain numbness. “Reading these novels in succession, you’d get the sense that millennials are defined not by the downward mobility of their generation but by something internal: a mysterious dearth of will,” wrote the Nation’s Katie Bloom. In the Baffler magazine, Jess Bergman laments the “perplexingly alienated women of recent American fiction”.
Are these young women (and they are usually young women) really as disempowered as they think they are? The protagonists are, it should be noted, mostly white. These relatively privileged daughters of the feminist era grew up being promised the liberation, independence and fulfilment that came with education and a career; perhaps they have felt betrayed by the shabby, merciless reality of much work under late-stage capitalism. Or, as Bloom suggests, do some modern workplace novels allow middle-class people to feel “like the real victims of capitalism instead of participants and beneficiaries”?
Maya, the narrator in Sam Byers’s recent novel Come Join Our Disease, is far from privileged. She is homeless, recruited to a job doing content moderation for a tech company via a dubious rehabilitation programme that brings to mind the techno-dystopias of the science-fiction TV series Black Mirror. “I wanted to get at this strange tension between the banality of office life and the profoundly distressing and traumatising nature of the imagery she’s exposed to,” says Byers. “To me there’s something distinctively contemporary about that.”
The way Byers explores the interplay between the utopian and the dystopian feels Ballardian. Expected to document her every move for social media, Maya thinks she is being offered a way out of poverty, but the reality is dehumanising. As Zadie Smith wrote of Crash: “In Ballard’s work there is always this mix of futuristic dread and excitement, a sweet spot where dystopia and utopia converge. For we cannot say we haven’t got precisely what we dreamed of, what we always wanted, so badly.”
Maya’s response is to rebel, and her liberation becomes central to the novel. Could it be found in a community that celebrates the rancid and the repugnant, allowing Maya to embody the opposite of what young women are expected to be? Potential salvation lies in collectivity and community. In her essay, Bergman holds up Temporary as “the first of these novels to acknowledge solidarity as a salve against capitalism’s worst offences” – Leichter’s heroine joins an agency for fugitive temps. Come Join Our Disease and There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job can be added to that list. And in Watson’s novel, too, we are left with the feeling that it is human relationships, outside of the workplace, that offer potential healing.
Yet, as is the case in reality, not everyone can hope for liberation. Sometimes, work simply sucks and there is no escape. As Byers notes: “Being a productive, respected, comparatively secure member of modern society is now a 24-hour project that actually consumes all the space needed for genuine inner development. I don’t think we can now just talk about work or labour as being the stuff that happens between nine and five in a designated work space,” he says. “It’s the ongoing work of making your personality a brand, of maintaining your wellness through diet and exercise, of having this kind of aspirational daily routine that is ironically completely exhausting.”
No wonder the “burnout novel” is flourishing. The more pessimistic of these imply there is no way out, there can be no alternative to capitalism – a line of thinking that the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher identified as capitalist realism. Perhaps this hints at why writers have turned to the surreal and fantastical to offer narratives of liberation. In the real world, an alternative way of living just doesn’t feel possible. How can it, when even basic stability (called “the steadiness” by Leichter’s temp) feels like a dream?
It will be interesting to see where, in light of the pandemic, the literature of work goes next. Will it become more and more surreal? Or, as our lives come to feel more dystopian, will pessimistic realism win out? As well as exploring the potential for collectivism and solidarity, I suspect it will grow in scope to look critically at racial, class and gender imbalance. In the wake of #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movement, workplace equality is still a long way off; and in a precarious economy inclusion often suffers.
Luster touches on workplace tokenism, but an upcoming debut The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris, to be published in June, makes this its central conceit. Harris wrote it while working in publishing. She ran into another black woman in the ladies’ toilet (a “rare occurrence”), only for the woman to fail to acknowledge her. What if, Harris wondered, “there could only be one of us”? The Other Black Girl begins as a story of office microaggressions but morphs into something far stranger. This tale of office racism feels like a thriller and ends up somewhere close to sci-fi. The payoff is darkly, brutally twisted, a witty commentary on the behaviours people adopt in order to get ahead within oppressive structures.
Rebecca Watson tells me that since lockdown, people have told her that the office scenes in Little Scratch feel nostalgic. If it no longer exists, could future fiction writers look more kindly upon office culture? I suspect the opposite will be true. “People felt this kind of work structure was an inevitability,” says Watson. “But suddenly, you realise that these structures are not actually necessary, but forced upon you.”