We’re in the midst of a slew of novels about the place we spend the most time: work.
Is it a trend? A new genre? A conspiracy?
Not quite. First there was Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to an End, and now there is Ed Park’s well-reviewed Personal Days. The list essentially stops there.
The New York Time’s review of Personal Days notes a subject I’ve occasionally chewed on: why isn’t the workplace a more prevalent subject for novels? As the sit-com The Office has shown, it’s a natural place to situate comedy. Beyond the absurd aspects of office life, however–which is where Ferris and Park seem to find their best material–office environments are perhaps too mundane to set a novel in.
Perhaps readers just don’t want to dig into a setting that typically causes the Sunday night blues. It’s enough to just wake up and go to work, after all. Sure there might be butt loads of existential meaning in our cube farms, but it’s tough enough to make it to quitting time, let alone come home to read about meetings and corporate jargon–or write about it–unless we’re laughing at the idiots in management or the cube next to us.
Here’s an idea for a party game–or a road trip game–or a game for any time you’re bored and want to kill time….hey, the perfect game for the workplace! Name novels that center the workplace in the novel’s dominant trajectory. The Times names titles such as Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine and Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, purposely focusing on literary novels.
Just looking at those titles, however, I begin to think of other possibilites: The Confederacy of Dunces, much of Kafka (perhaps the stories don’t take place at work, but they’re often about work in some way), Henry Green’s novels, The Grapes of Wrath. There must be more.
The question, of course, in terms of novels like Park’s and Ferris’s, is whether the novels are really about work or whether work is a secondary thread of the novel, present only in relief to another larger and more meaningful theme.
Perhaps not many novels focus on work because work, despite the quantity of time it swallows from our lives, is still marginal in terms of who we really are. That’s the way I prefer to think of it.
How depressing it would be, after all, if Descartes had said, “I work, therefore I am”?