October 14, 2007

Work, continued

Filed under: Literature, Media — duncan @ 6:33 pm

Isn’t this the reason for the incredible popularity of ‘The Office’?  Not that it’s funny, but that it puts on screen an experience all its viewers know but that no art has adequately conveyed: the horrifying misery of middle class work; the nightmarish boredom and despair of the 9 to 5.  Since Flaubert, critics and novelists congratulate themselves on their literature’s self-conscious mundanity.  No one seems to have noticed that the bulk of modern experience remains unexpressed, on page or screen.  Forget working class life; forget manual labour.  When was even office work dealt with fully, adequately, profoundly by contemporary art?

Literature is part of the leisure industry.  It is driven by a certain economic form of life.  It sustains itself through the following narrative: you work all day, in order to live large at the weekend.  There is no real difference between going out clubbing and going to the National Theatre – culture is an escape from the daily grind; and the daily grind is justified because it allows you to afford culture.  It is not in culture’s interest to  undermine this lifestyle.  The products of the leisure industry are in a symbiotic relationship with industry as a whole.

The challenge, then (as Tom Tomorrow’s Sparky the Penguin implies), is to create a depiction of modern work that does not participate in the stories modern work tells in order to justify itself.  The genius of ‘The Office’ is in its use of the unreliable narrator: by adopting the form of the documentary, the workers’ ironic digs at their daily routine are revealed as a particularly hellish part of the routine.  At the moment I’m reading Joshua Ferris’s ‘Then We Came to the End’.  Written in the first person plural, it depicts the hive mind of an advertising agency.  But, fun though this is, it prevents Ferris from getting to the heart of his subject: the griefs, desires and miseries that can never surface in the office, but that drive all modern work.


  1. The funny thing is that writers (well, the successful ones anyway) live the most leisurely lives imaginable. How can they write so adroitly about the rat race if they have the luxury of going to bed at 3 am and sleeping until 11 each morning. Muscial artisits similarly employ 9 to 5 drudgery into their songs while most of them have never even seen the inside of an office park.

    I think (in fact, I KNOW) I gleaned this bit of wisdom from a Nick Hornby book. It may have been High Fidelity, the Pollysyllapbic Spree or How to Be Good or maybe even About A Boy–those are all the ones I read at least (I just added this because I don’t want you to think I am that insightful).

    Comment by robertjerome — October 26, 2007 @ 11:08 pm

  2. I like to discuss literature as well, however, I will guiltily admit that I don’t read as much as I would like to. I normally would have posted this on my blog, but since my blog doesn’t have anything to do with books I will post it here in the form of a response. This is my Amazon review (woo-hoo!) for Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man which I read this summer:

    Exodus of the soul, August 20, 2007

    Intertwined lives, identity crisises, coincidence, fear, longing, isolation, confusion–not to mention wonder, amazement, rebirth as well as the liberation and ecstasy (and sometimes illusion) of epiphany. These are what fill out the lives of the characters in Aleksandar Hemon’s second novel Nowhere Man. These traits have also unmistakably been associated with the American refugee experience in fiction.

    Hemon is a refugee from the former Yugoslavia and a superlative writer whose power to combine words into image-invoking sentences is unmatched given the fact that he came to the United States in 1992 and didn’t start writing in English until 1995. Despite having a fluent grasp of the language, he occasioanlly inserts words in his prose that seem like an imperfect fit. These slips usually come across as inventiveness, however, and add authenticity to his status as a refugee writer and non-native English speaker.

    It is appropriate that a writer should come along and tell the contemporary story of the American refugee from the war torn regions of the former Yugoslavia, even as these refugees’ impact on the American demographic topography has yet to be fully measured. This novel will refresh readers’ memories of the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and that the American immigrant story didn’t end at the turn of the Century. It will be interesting to see how history writes the story of the exodus of denizens of the former Yugoslavia from their homeland. Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man is a meritorious first chapter to that saga. Comment | Permalink

    Comment by robertjerome — October 27, 2007 @ 12:14 am

  3. Oh lordy… The last thing I want is *more* books I ought to read! I’ve already got enough to keep me in the library till 2050, or thereabouts…

    Comment by praxisblog — October 28, 2007 @ 10:32 pm

  4. I wasn’t aware that there is a British version of The Office in addition to an American version. I was just browsing You Tube and I saw this funny clip ( ) from the UK version. The jokes and premise of both programs appear to be similar. In regards to your whole “symbiotic relationship between leisure and industry” argument, it is clear that The Office–as do almost all America sitcoms–incorporates both facets of life within a single narrative. These types of television comedies thrive as weeknight “unwind-time” fodder. By balancing the ennui of the work experience with levity they create an after-dinner meditation that allows us to forget about the stressful day we’ve had while at the same time they provide us with hope for facing tomorrow. People watch these shows and recognize the same soulless, vapid and petty quables that exist within their own workplace hives. The humor that exists within all of this is the mundanity of it all and what we can deduce from it in our creative (or leisure) time.

    Comment by robertjerome — November 3, 2007 @ 12:36 am

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