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?

17 Responses

  1. i’m on my coffee break right
    i’m on my coffee break right now…

    I’ve worked in offices for about 20 years. When I tried to describe the experience of working for state government as “Kafkaesque” to one of our senior managers, he had no idea what I was talking about.

    Levi, this is a nicely compiled list of books and a great subject for discussion.

    I don’t know if this was a book before it was a movie, but the film “And Justice For All” comes to mind.

  2. MayakovskyThe Russian poet

    The Russian poet from the early 20th century wrote a poem called “About Conferences”, where office workers’ torsos disappear into one conference room, while their lower halves confer elsewhere.

  3. 3rd novel synopsis for Xerox
    3rd novel synopsis for Xerox contest

    As for the question, Cheever first comes to mind.

    Dutch-booked’s Norbert Radd, the main character of the novel, has been dutch-booked. He’s made career bets that have added up to an overall loss materially, but he’s still smiling and still loved and still going. The novel traces his life as an expatriate American working as a mariner, English cram school teacher, and university English composition instructor, through the Philippines, Seoul, and central China, with a tale-within-a-tale that serves as a contrast between Stateside life and expat life.

    I just got off the phone with my brother who hasn’t been able to post it to I can’t post it for reasons no one can explain to me at this internet cafe. I finished a chain-saw edit of my 3rd novel, paid a local typist to key in 37 pages, and married another project to bring it in at 4121 lines of 12 point font in a MSWord document.

    Objectively it’s a bad novel, typical of most authors’ first novels, but at least it is a novel! I wish my Chinese was better so I’d know the word count and berate myself for never learning MSWord’s scheme for doing their word count.

  4. Political inactionI find it
    Political inaction

    I find it interesting that some of what you mentioned and everything I thought of was written by people repressed by fascist governments. Any of the Russian writers do a good job of telling repression stories, namely because they were truly repressed. All of Gogol’s stories smack of it, and are great examples because of his sense of humor (Its funny when it happens to someone else). Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky is a glaring example of someone frustrated by the life of a menial employee. American Psycho really captured it as well, and he had a cozy job. It showed how hard you have to focus on every detail (clothes, music, business cards) so you can forget the giant picture that you are sitting in an office all day, effectively producing nothing, meeting superficially with people who could care less about anything except what you can do for them.

    That being said, is working in an office so close to communism? Maybe not, but it is certainly repression. It would be a good example of how a society could accept such blatant inhumane rule.

    A good example of a book about getting off the grid is In Search of Captain Zero by Alan Weissbecker. It starts out with a story about how he was the easiest person in the world to find. He lived in the last house on the left in Long Island. Then one day in his 40s, he packed up shop, bought an RV, and travelled through Central America surfing, etc. Zorba the Greek is another I immediately think of when considering living off the grid. Zorba is the mascot.

  5. while not cubicle boundThe
    while not cubicle bound

    The life of a teacher is really difficult for anyone who hasn’t stepped foot in a public high school for years to imagine. I find a lot of people making snap judgements about how “easy” it must be to teach since you “get your summers off”…all those canned responses. Or the opposite…people who look at me like I have a personality glitch because I work with teenagers. Ha.

    One book that was written a while ago titled Up The Down Staircase, is a great description of life as a first year teacher. The struggle of trying to fight the constant battles of social constructs, pressures, (and ugh) parents, and (ugh) administrators is very well written in this book.

    I remember reading it my first year of teaching (which I might add was hell on earth), and sobbing at some points because the reality was, the situation wasn’t going to improve until experience improved ME. I was bound to have to fight my way up the down staircase.

    I think anyone who reacts with a prune face to someone who says, “I teach high school”, or someone who thinks they’d DEFINITELY be able to teach because…”how hard can it be?”, should read this book.

  6. Those Russians are amazing at
    Those Russians are amazing at workplace satires … Dostoevsky got in a few jabs as well, and I don’t think he ever even had a job. Anyway, I will look for this poem, sounds quite unusual.

  7. Thanks, I will have to look
    Thanks, I will have to look into some of these! Yes, funny that I just commented above about the Russian mastery of this subject matter. I wonder if they have the most obnoxious work schedules of all? But then, I’ve heard being a salaryman in Tokyo is no picnic either, yet I can’t think of many examples of this subject in Japanese literature.

  8. Thanks Kairo — actually I do
    Thanks Kairo — actually I do remember that book, and wasn’t it made into a movie? Or am I just remembering old episodes of “Room 222”?

    I admit, though, that I have sometimes envied the teacher’s life, and I will consider your comments the next time I do. But, still. You DO get summers off!

  9. “Rebellion en la Granja” — I
    “Rebellion en la Granja” — I guess that would be what we call “Animal Farm”? Just checkin’ …

  10. You’re remembering
    You’re remembering correctly–the movie was made. I think it’s so funny what people say about the summer part of being a teacher. I hardly have my summers off. When I’m not taking graduate classes to get my MA in order to make more than $25,000 a year…and when I’m not in curriculum meetings at least four times a month during the summer…and when I’m not writing my state assesment results during June (damn no child left behind and the train it pulled in on)…and when we’re all not revamping our curriculum for the upcoming fall…and reading about autism/aspergers, new meds for ADD/ADHD, and trying to decide if I can face another August of teaching with no airconditioning and screens in my classroom, then I guess the teacher’s summer is the life for me.

    Thanks for the comments.

  11. I am a sort of fake teacher
    I am a sort of fake teacher that can relate to the difficulty in lesson planning and the low salary, but being an English teacher abroad is really nothing to complain about. My low salary is nothing compared to most workers in eastern europe, but it did give me a sense of the difficulties of teaching.

    That being said, I just read an artice about Dave Eggers in some literary journal where he talks about teachers and all the positive work he’s been doing for the world of teaching. Namely, proposing a Reaganesque system of trickledown economics in education (turning old Republican trickery onto the new Republicans). This is where he suggests that by paying teachers more and paying for their educations, that would trickle down to the students and help our future. Hardly a revolutionary view, but he puts it an interesting way. In the article the reasons he cites are that teachers really don’t get summers off. Most work summer schools or second jobs in the summer as well as absurd hours during the school year. Many would consider a 12 day a welcome break. Why there is such a giant misconception about the teaching profession is very odd. And the inaction surrounding it. Shouldn’t there be lobby groups? I’m sure there are, but god, it is as far as I know, the future that is at stake.

  12. Stairs to the RoofA Tennesse
    Stairs to the Roof

    A Tennesse Williams play. Saw in regional theatre, a few years ago now, over here in ole blighty.

    About a bloke in a boring, monotonous job who discovers the ‘stairs to the roof’. People think he’s weird for even wanting to go up there, maybe they think he’s going to top himself, etc. He gets to thinking where his life’s gone, etc. I’d have to dig out my copy (bought because I loved the performance so much)to give better sypnosis…

    Anyone else read this one?

    Here’s a review:,1169,574544,00.html

  13. Boiler RoomThe movie “Boiler
    Boiler Room

    The movie “Boiler Room” with Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel comes to mind, although several parts of the film seem cribbed straight from “Glengarry Glen Ross”. The fly-by-night worker-be-damned atmosphere of the office reminds me of the single worst (and very short lived) job I’ve ever had being a telemarketer. I’d sell my ass on a street corner before I’d do that again (OK-I’ll admit that’s pushing it-but just a little…).

  14. Work and DesertsWhen I read
    Work and Deserts

    When I read this post, I thought of the book “Generation X” by Doug Coupland. I think perhaps it doesn’t deal with the fictional characters’ day-to-day life in a work office, but more so their reaction to it, they got disgusted, and moved out to a desert, I guess, to become bohemians. I remember how the book included illustrations and definitions related to office life, such as office cubicles related to as “veal fattening pens”. Well it’s a great book, though most of us cannot run off to the desert if we do not like the office work. Maybe there should be more books out there dealing with a character who stays at the job and how they deal with it, by staying.

  15. Another grand, and very
    Another grand, and very popular example of this treadmill, running towards nothing lifestyle is the movie Office Space, effectively a funny version of American Psycho.

  16. I never heard of this one. I
    I never heard of this one. I do remember Giovanni Ribisi’s excellent brief performance in “Masked and Anonymous”, which is another reason I’ll try to find this. Thanks.

    Interestingly, there seem to be many more good movies than books about annoying work environments. Like the recent instant classic, “Office Space” (“that’d be great …”).

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