Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bad days at the office: the novels that turn work into a private hell

Intense rivalries, horrible bosses, secretaries at war … desk jobs prove fertile psychological territory for novelists, as these fine examples show

Office work
Cross to bear... office work. Photograph: Rick Neibel/Rex
How many hours of your one wild and precious life have you spent working in an office? The malaise at the heart of the white-collar bargain has driven many authors to resist, writing novels that pit the existential fear of annihilation against the creeping terror of the everyday.

Take Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling, where a young woman called … um … Amélie finds herself enmeshed in a nightmarish struggle with managers at the baffling Yumimoto Corporation. Her portrayal of Japan’s stiff hierarchies brought accusations of xenophobia, but it’s hard not to empathise with Amélie-san as she becomes entangled in a series of unfortunate misunderstandings that subject her to a catalogue of humiliations. As she looks through the enormous bay window on the top floor, she dreams of “throwing herself into the view”, transforming the mundane act of staring at the world beyond the confines of the office – as thousands of workers do every day – into an elemental struggle, a cataclysmic confrontation of epic proportions.

Another novel which reveals the void at the heart of contemporary working life is Jenny Turner’s Brainstorm. It opens with Lorna “still here” in front of her “large and ugly computer”, but with no idea of who she is or what she is doing there. 

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