Friday, September 26, 2008

Ed Park's "Personal Days": Book Review.

It's an anomaly when the TV show "The Office" thrives in British and American versions in popular culture, and "9-to-5" survives as a song and a musical, how infrequently we have successful stories that continue the tradition of "Bartleby the Scrivener" as testimonies to soul-crushing clerical jobs. The novel unfolds in three parts: first, told in the first person plural, short vignettes introduce you to the characters and their personalities. This proves the liveliest part, full of snarky humor that Park renders precisely: "We are moderately proud of our youthful haircuts and overpriced rectangular eyeglasses but that's about it." (7)

It's nervously casual, but the menace lingers underneath the banter, gossip, and machinations. The decade may promise casual office wear and work circles, but hierarchies and capitalism still rule. Here's one sub-section in its entirety:
"'The lottery.' We all play the lottery. We buy our tickets individually because we don't want to have to divvy up all that loot in case the numbers come up right." (24)

Joshua Ferris' fittingly titled "And Then We Came to the End" preceded "Personal Days," but this latter novel probably has a better title, which in the closing section warps pleasingly into Joycean style, suiting the confined, pressured, and fading sensibilities of one of a dwindling cadre of office workers in Manhattan. It's a cruel world despite the chatty tone, enriched by Park's mercilessly deadpan excerpts from such so-improbable-they-could-be-real corporate reading as "Yes I Drank the Kool-Aid-- And Went Back for Seconds," "'Three Easy Rules for Impressing the Powers That Be (and Maybe Becoming One Yourself) (A Simpleton's [TM] Guide), by Douglas Salgado and Uri Boris," or "'The Pegasus Plan: How To Get the Job You Want, the Respect You Deserve, and the Employees You Need to Succeed for Life' by D.M.S. Shrapnel, with an introduction by Whittles Langley, CEO of Ptarmigan Group."

As with much of "Bartleby," the city's streets outside earn less attention from Park's dead-on narrators than the cubicles and hallways within a building graced by a gargoyle on its facade. The long over, the remaining employees await their termination by unseen Californians on a speakerphone; their bosses hover about; the tension pervades the corridors and their psyches. The setting reminds me of the documentary film "" about a similar enterprise's boom and bust.
"It wasn't always like this. Before the Firings, a large team worked here, and traces of their residence can still be found. We knew some of them, though not well. We don't really recognize the scattering of remaining employees, who sit hunched with their backs toward us as if awaiting the death blow. Supposedly there are more survivors on the fifth floor, but not too many. These are people whose tasks never intersect with ours, people we never even need to e-mail." (45)

With names like the Crow and the Sprout, one may think of "Bartleby." With names like "K." and Knott and the Unnameable, Kafka and Beckett of course echo forbiddingly. As the plot tangles, the second section brings in Grimes, a CRO in more ways than one, who appears to be an agent of forces that threaten to eliminate the small band of workers from part one. This section does falter a bit, as it's labelled in outline form, told through limited omniscience, and drags down into minutiae that while expanding the situation in part one, does become often a bit dull and rambling. While this does match the tone of the ever-longer outline format, the tone does grow wearisome, if appropriately so as it details how even the letters for the months of the year in Con Ed abbreviation turn as if a sinister message of doom.

Still, in part three, one sentence fighting off "the entropy of fragments," Jonah, trapped in an elevator, types out a message to a fired colleague about what he finds about Grimes, who also is the Crow. It all makes demented half-sense as it's told over nearly fifty pages. While I kept the impression that a more tightly edited version, as a novella, would have packed a lot more punch, and that the impact of the narrative dissipated over 240 pages rather than a hundred, Park wraps up his story in a satisfying manner that allows it to be not too tidily arranged. It remains uneven, but lasts as more than a light read, for beneath its offhandedly oblique satire, there's material that shows wit, observation, and compassion beneath ironic t-shirt slogans, caffeinated ennui, and corporate coprophilia.

1 comment:

Bo said...

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