Like many of us, I can contemplate living “off the grid” but in fact I live in a grid of grids. I spend the majority of my waking hours staring at a computer inside a large, well-lit office building, occasionally breaking for meetings or coffee or birthday cakes (with 300 people on each floor, every day is somebody’s birthday) or lunch.
When my day job causes me great annoyance — which is often, and which is lately — I search for literary models to help keep my mind uncaged. Because so many human beings live office-bound lives, I wonder why there are not more great works of fiction and poetry that deal with the dilemma of the working-person’s existence, or try to decode the rigid social customs, pressures and rituals of this lifestyle.
I can think of only a few examples of stories, novels, poems or plays that tackle this topic head-on. The ones that come to mind are:
- The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol
In 19th Century St. Petersburg, a timid employee attempts to better himself by improving his dress code, with dreadful results. Gogol is known for a wild sense of humor and a limitless supply of pathos, and both of these qualities brew together here to create a story that seethes with resentment.
- Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
In a 19th Century Wall Street law office, a depressed clerk becomes quietly unglued, adopting a behavior that epitomizes the term “passive aggressive”. This classic novella is narrated by the clerk’s boss, who turns out to be the most sympathetic character in the book, though he is sadly unable to find a way to help his employee.
- Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
A young intern at a magazine very much like The New Yorker hates his job and recklessly wages war against his tyrannical boss. This novel was based on McInerney’s own experiences, and it neatly captures the contradictions of working as a low-level, menial employee at a supposedly “cool job” (I’ve been there, and I relate).
- Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
The playwright David Mamet is known for fast-talking, hard-driving ensemble arrangements, and the ravages of success and failure in a dowdy real estate firm provide Mamet an ideal backdrop for his insights and skills.
- Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
This expose of West Coast tech-era Silicon-Valley craziness depicts a strangely warm, accepting work environment where smart people work out their mind-body dichotomies in odd and individualistic ways. My only problem with this book is that I’ve worked a lot of East Coast tech-era Silicon Alley jobs, and I’m jealous that my west coast counterparts obviously have it better.
I like all these books, but none of them quite capture the precise mix of illogic, repression and anomie that epitomizes, for me, the workaday life. There is one novel that does seem to capture it, but it does not take place in an office at all. I’m speaking of The Castle by Franz Kafka, a wonderfully comic work in which a man travels to a remote Eastern European village where he has been assigned to work as a land surveyor. There is a castle overlooking the village, and all the peasants who live underneath regard this castle with mystical awe, measuring their own self-worth according to whether or not they know anyone inside the castle, or have ever been in any way connected with it.
The land surveyor has been hired by the inhabitants of the castle, but he is unable to establish communication with anyone inside. Instead he is caught in a web of petty bickerings and rivalries among the peasants, each of whom promise to bring him closer to the castle despite the fact that none of them are actually capable of doing so. It’s a really funny book, and the meaning of the central metaphor has been interpreted in many ways: does the castle represent God? Government? Love and happiness?
A quick glance at Kafka’s life provides the obvious answer. Kafka worked his entire adult life as a middle manager in a large insurance firm in Prague. “The Castle” is about the frustrated life of a modern employee. The village is the work environment, and the edifice on the hill represents what we now call “executive row”, that mysterious realm of grandeur and success which few attain but all are told to aspire to. The Castle is the cry of a trapped bureaucrat.
It seems to me the working writers of the world could do a bit more crying. What other novels or stories or poems can you think of that deal with this subject — am I missing any big ones? If you live a working life, what piece of literature best expresses what your own experiences have been?