A new Friday fugue, concluding this week, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories. (Previous weeks can be viewed here, here and here, if you’re keen.)
Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)
“Her shift ends around the time yours begins, and since you live on adjacent streets you frequently pass each other on your ways to and from work. Sometimes you don’t, and then you walk your bicycle by the salon to catch a glimpse of her inside. For her part, she seems fascinated by the video shop, and stares with particular interest at the ever-changing posters and DVD covers. She does not stare at you, but when your eyes meet, she does not look away.”
You will read this unsure what to expect, because you know it is a novel but its title designates it a self-help book, and you will immediately be surprised to find that the story addresses you directly.
This is an unusual perspective to adopt, but Mohsin Hamid executes it consistently and dramatically; soon, you will think that this is the only way in which this story could have been told.
Containing many barbed observations about political and economic practices, you might think this is all about pretense and cleverness, but once the voice takes hold, you find yourself more engaged in this self-help book than you would have thought possible.
The tone is remarkable (I both read it and listened to the audio edition, which is narrated by the author) and if the reader responds to it (you will know almost immediately), this short novel, filled with detailed experiences of the working world alongside a handful of significant relationships, becomes a pageturner, as the momentum of one man’s life builds to the inevitable conclusion.
Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008)
“My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.”
The White Tiger won the 2008 Booker Prize. “Stories of rottenness and corruption are always the best stories, aren’t they?”
The novel poses the question: what does it take to get ahead in the Darkness?
“These days there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat — or get eaten up.”
(It takes the ‘eating’ rather than the ‘getting eaten’ of course.)
This makes for bitter reading, but the narrative voice is sharply entertaining and resolute.
Gabrielle Roy’s The Cashier (1954)
“His well-pressed suit – this was the week for the grey Oxford – did not show too much wear. Who could have realized that Alexandre was at the end of his endurance? What attracts less attention than a small man installed in his niche?”
Readers meet Alexandre Chenevert in his grey Oxford week, immediately understanding that his life as a bank teller in the Savings Bank in Montreal is governed by regulation and order. But his character is enlivened by the unexpected, for instance the lengthy and spirited discussions at lunch, about subjects as varied as politics and the change in climate as scientists observe a trend of warming temperatures.
Those familiar with Gabrielle Roy’s other fiction will recognize her skill in recreating communities in story; whether the St. Henri neighbourhood of Montreal in The Tin Flute or the Portage des Prés, Water Hen country of Manitoba, a strong sense of place permeates much of her prose.
Elsewhere, beyond the wicket, life is unpredictable and disordered. In the workplace, Alexandre can exert a framework of propriety, but beyond those boundaries, he must accept imperfections and more serious set-backs, this reticent and reserved man steps outside the familiar and challenges his own understanding of the meaning of life.
Perhaps inevitably, this process is sobering, disheartening even, but there is some joy in the monotonous tale, arguably all that any of us can hope for, whether on or off the page.
Have you read Gabrielle Roy or any other fiction which takes readers into workplaces?