I’ve just finished reading the wonderful ‘Then We Came to The End‘ by Joshua Ferris, a hilarious and touching account of life in a Chicago ad agency in the early noughties. It got me thinking about novels set in the office, and why there aren’t more of them. As any of you who work in an office will know, it is often a rich source of side-achingly good anecdotes – we love nothing more than sharing our hilarious and often ridiculous office tales over a glass of wine with friends. I have often heard so much about a friend’s particularly noteworthy colleague that they have become a comedy character in my head, acting out a role – the office womaniser, the desperate divorcee, the over-enthusiastic first jobber. With at least 25% of the UK’s workforce employed in ‘office work’ of some kind, it is suprising that more of us don’t engineer our escape from the drudgery by committing these guffaw-inducing experiences to the page. Perhaps it is because we feel it is too familiar to most, too normal and therefore not interesting to the masses. Perhaps it is because, at the end of the day, the last thing we fancy doing is reliving those long, boredom stricken hours by writing them down. Or perhaps it is simply difficult to write intelligently and meaningfully about work – like domestic fiction, it takes a masterly writer to turn the everyday experience into something memorable and resonant. I think this is probably more like it. And most writers who succeed in writing about work do so because they choose a more personal angle – they focus on the threat to individuality (creative forces vs convention/conforming), or to the happiness of the home (family/relationship dramas created by nature of work or colleagues),or our interior life (when work tests our morals/expectation/energy).
Here are five books which drew their inspiration from the office and truly succeed in turning the 9-5 into something more interesting:
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
A novel set in a office of a Daily newspaper based in Rome. The book consists of eleven interwoven stories, each focussing on one of the eccentric and charming characters who make up the newspaper’s staff. The chapters are titled with amusing headlines which feature in the fictional daily – my favourites being ‘WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 26’ and ‘THE SEX LIVES OF THE ISLAMIC EXTREMISTS.’ Each story delves deep into the personal life of the staffer, often revealing something entirely unexpected and unknown to the other characters and the reader. We discover that there is much more to these downtrodden office workers than meets the eye. The overarching theme is the anxiety surrounding the paper’s diminishing readership and the growth of digital news, a strand which does come to a head as the novel draws to a close, however what you will remember about this book is the astonishing detail, the effortless wit of Tom Rachman’s writing and a basset hound called Schopenhauer. Here are some of my favourite passages:
“…looking back, has this journalism experience been a nightmare for you?’
‘Did you enjoy any of it?’
‘I liked going to the library,’ he says. ‘I think I prefer books to people — primary sources scare me.”
“He glances at the sorry trio of copy editors before him: Dave Belling, a simpleton far too cheerful to compose a decent headline; Ed Rance, who wears a white ponytail–what more need one say?; and Ruby Zaga, who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct. What is the value in remonstrating with such a feckless triumvirate?”
“You have to understand, Annika, that I have pretty much resigned myself to spinsterhood since, I don’t know, since approximately my entire life. But just because I act chirpy about it doesn’t mean that I’m chirpy about it. You have Menzies. Me? I dread weekends. How depressing is that? I wish I didn’t have vacation time-I have no idea what to do with it. I don’t have anyone to go anywhere with. Look at me-I’m practically forty and I still resemble Pippi Longstocking.”
Tom Rachman is that most rare of things; a very talented comic novelist (in the vein of the great comic novelists such as Kingsley Amis and Waugh) and I am keen to read his second book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, released May 2014.
In Office Hours by Lucy Kellaway
Now you could be forgiven for dismissing this as Chick Lit at a first glance – I certainly did. However, if you look carefully you will see that it is published by Fig Tree, an imprint known for literary fiction and if you google the authors name, you will discover that Lucy Kellaway is a long-serving columnist of the FT. Suddenly more intriguing, no? (I am a fully confessed chick-lit snob!) In Office Hours is set in the offices of a fictional oil giant Atlantic Energy and it tracks the affairs of two women: Stella, 44, who heads Economics, Strategy and Planning, is incredibly rich and married with two children, and Bella, 27, a PA who became a single mother while at University. Both enter into crazed, doomed-to-fail affairs; Stella with Rhys, a fast-track trainee and Bella with James, her married boss. Their infatuations threaten their careers, reputations and families but they are unable to stop until they have destroyed at least one of these things. This novel goes deep into the psychology behind the office romance; the reasons that compel us to risk everything for an illicit coupling. Kellaway has done her research (she wrote a great column on the subject here) and it really does show. This is normally the kind of novel I avoid like the plague, but thanks to Kellaway’s acute and sensitive office observations (gleaned from her own experiences at the FT), her exploration of the factors involved when starting an office fling and her carefully drawn, often sympathetic characters, it really does stand apart from the rest.
The Receptionist by Janet Groth
Ok so this is not strictly a novel – this is the autobiography of Janet Groth, a women who spent two decades working as a receptionist at The New Yorker, watching a parade of famous writers, poets, cartoonists and editors pass by her desk on the 18th floor. It includes some fantastic anecdotes about E.B. White, Muriel Spark, Tom Wolfe, J.D. Salinger, James Thurber and Joseph Mitchell (among many others). Groth’s writing flows beautifully and some of the stories are so sparkingly eccentric that one could be forgiven for thinking this is a work of fiction. She doesn’t shy away from describing the intimate relationships and love affairs she had with many of the people who passed through the doors of TNY, nor does she try to hide her own literary ambitions, often pondering why she wasn’t given the opportunity to progress within the organisation. A fantastic account and exploration of a young woman in a creative workplace in the fifties, sixties and seventies with themes that continue to resonate today.
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
By far Evelyn Waugh’s most hilarious novel, Scoop is the farcical tale of of British foreign correspondents reporting on a civil war in the fictional East African country of Ishmaelia. Subtitled ‘A Novel about Journalists, Scoop opens in the offices of The Daily Beast (a fictional newspaper thought to be based upon Waugh’s experiences of The Daily Mail, where he worked as a reporter) in 1938 where a hilarious but costly misunderstanding unfolds. Instead of sending John Courteney Boot, fashionable novelist and travel writer, to cover a war in the East African republic of Ishmaelia, The Daily Beast dispatches William Boot, the mild-mannered and absent-minded author of the paper’s ‘biweekly half-column devoted to nature.’
“We think it a very promising little war. A microcosm you might say of world drama. We propose to give it fullest publicity. We shall have our naval, military and air experts, our squad of photographers, our colour reporters, covering the war from every angle and on every front.”
Therefore only a small part of this novel is based in an office (much of it takes place in the field) but I tend to think of it as an office novel, perhaps because the offices and the staffers of the newspaper are so well drawn, the newspaper itself so believable (despite its ‘faulty towers’ silliness and mix-ups) a quality which led Christopher Hitchens to describe it as ‘a novel of pitiless realism’ in his introduction to the 2000 Penguin Classics edition.
I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom that they are absolutely, point-blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.
Then We Came to The End by Joshua Ferris
I was very late to the party with this book (Ferris is about to publish his third novel and I’ve only just finished the first!) but this book deserves every bit of the hype it received. Set in a Chicago ad agency at the beginning of the noughties, the book documents the daily activities of the office across a couple of years of economic instability and financial struggle and the lives of those affected by it. Set solely within the office (stories of the outside are recounted by various characters as anecdotes or memories) Ferris employs the third person plural to great effect – the narrator is the ‘we’ of the office; a technique which serves to emphasise how assimilated ‘we’ become at work, how the office environment does not allow for individuality or personal expression, the office itself is the body if you like and ‘we’ make up the various parts of it, all working towards the same goals and aims. Anyone who has ever worked in an office will read this and will find themselves weeping tears of joy (or perhaps despair!) at how spot on Ferris’ writing is when describing the office environment and the foibles of those working within it:
We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.
There was so much unpleasantness in the workaday world. The last thing you ever wanted to do at night was go home and do the dishes. And just the idea that part of the weekend had to be dedicated to getting the oil changed and doing the laundry was enough to make those of us still full from lunch want to lie down in the hallway and force anyone dumb enough to remain committed to walk around us. It might not be so bad. They could drop food down to us, or if that was not possible, crumbs from their PowerBars and bags of microwave popcorn surely would end up within an arm’s length sooner or later. The cleaning crews, needing to vacuum, would inevitably turn us on our sides, preventing bedsores, and we would make little toys out of runs in the carpet, which, in moments of extreme regression, we might suck on for comfort.
We all knew there was a good deal of pointlessness to nearly all the meetings and in fact one meeting out of every three or four was nearly perfectly without gain or purpose but many meetings revealed the one thing that was necessary and so we attended them and afterward we thanked each other.”
One of my favourite things about this novel is how Ferris manages to convey the boredom of the office, time-moving slowly, the 8 hour day which can sometimes feel more like 18 hours:
Some days felt longer than other days. Some days felt like two whole days. Unfortunately those days were never weekend days. Our Saturdays and Sundays passed in half the time of a normal workday. In other words, some weeks it felt like we worked ten straight days and had only one day off.
We had any number of clocks surrounding us, and every one of them at one time or another exhibited a lively sense of humor.
Despite the seemingly boring subject matter, Ferris develops some very interesting characters – characters that the reader warms to and ultimately, roots for when the chips are down.
Do you have a favourite office novel that I should have included here? Why do you think it is such a difficult subject matter to handle well? Please leave me your comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!