A new Friday fugue, running through this month, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories.
Some of my favourite novels spend a good amount of time considering the good amount of time that we spend in our workplaces.
Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End and Rob Payne’s Working Class Zero take readers inside office life.
Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey and Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps are set in bookstores.
(I’ve worked in both environments and although I wasn’t reading about them when they were paying my rent, I enjoyed revisiting those worlds on the page.)
In these three novels, the workers also take their cues from clients and customers, whether in a law office, an ad agency or a taxi cab.
Susan Rieger’s The Divorce Papers (2014)
“What is it about this divorce that’s getting to you? As I recall, you defended a child murderer without blinking.”
Sophie Diehl’s boss poses this question to her in a memo dated May 21, 1999.
The novel is entirely rooted in office and legal documents, and Sophie is the protagonist, who is more comfortable with alleged criminals than angry spouses, but she is asked to take a divorce case and settlement negotiations are underway.
The playful pink cover does not mitigate the bitter and relentlessly sad story of a marriage unravelling; the legal files contain copies of letters penned by other family members, and the emotional impact is felt keenly despite the distance introduced by the documentation.
The colour does perhaps reflect Sophie’s naivete, but without the sometimes-silly and occasionally-shallow (who isn’t?) banter with her girlfriend in emails and the complexities of her dating life, The Divorce Papers would be a sombre read indeed.
Pacing is steady, but not compelling: it is a matter of “due process”, and characters are solidly developed, so that one can set it aside for periods of time until the craving for the epistolary form strikes again.
Terry Fallis’ No Relation (2014)
“So, you’re not quite ready. You haven’t quite outgrown this writing thing. The sand is running through the family hourglass, but there’s still time yet. Take a few more weeks, take a month, and you may feel differently at the end.”
Earnest Hemmingway, with an extra ‘a’ and ‘m’ to set him apart from Ernest Hemingway, struggles to assert himself on the literary scene and in the landscape of his life.
When the novel opens, he has lost his job, his girlfriend, and his wallet. The process of getting his license replaced should be the easiest element to fix, but even it results in an event which goes viral online once caught on video.
Fans of The Best Laid Plans will recognize the blend of credible characters and gentle humour.
If the tone is slightly over-“earnest” at times, that’s easily forgiven because the novel’s core idea (the importance of balancing one’s true identity and vocation with the burden of others’ expectations) is so integral to human happiness.
Terry Fallis’ fiction reminds readers to look for the humour in the darker moments. Canlit need not always be grim.
Rawi Hage’s Carnival (2012)
“I can always tell by the strip of cars and lanterns in front of the Bolero who is inside. Some of the spiders always sit together and eat at the same time; they regulate their lives around the filling of their bellies and the smoking of their cigarettes. Then there is us, the flies, who come and go at all hours.”
Fly is a restless and solitary narrator who drives a taxi cab to pay for his rent (owed for both car and apartment) and food and a little besides; he is a wanderer, an observer, a dreamer.
Some aspects of his story are simply quotidian details (his fares on an evening, what he eats when he gets home), other aspects include memories and imaginings (brushes with the fantastic, visions of past and future).
Fly’s voice weights these equally, so the story veers sharply between these elements. The spiders camp at designated taxi stands; the flies drive around to find fares.
There is much to be learned of the culture of drivers in this novel (e.g. the political machinations within the professions, the varied approaches to shift-work, the night-time repair shop) for Fly is an excellent observer.
Have you read any of these? Do you enjoy fiction which allows the workplace to take centre stage?