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.