Few institutions have offered themselves as less promising for the novelist than the modern office. And yet…
Few institutions have offered themselves as less promising for the novelist than the modern office. Work of any kind is a tricky subject for representation; office work—gray, gnomic, and unknowable—even more so. After all, what is it that people do in offices? Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” the locus classicus for discussions of early clerical work, begins by depicting strategies for avoiding work at what is nominally a law office. Few of the unnamed narrator’s employees seem to do much lawyering: Turkey works through the morning, but gets drunk at lunch; Nippers never finds an appropriate position to sit at his desk. And then there’s Bartleby, who, unlike his colleagues, works—and does so without fanfare, “silently, palely, mechanically.” But rather than producing things, he seems to consume them. “As if long famishing for something to copy,” the narrator observes, “he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.” And then—famously—Bartleby suddenly loses interest in his work. The tedium of office life offers a brief moment of satisfaction for Bartleby, which just as quickly vanishes; eventually deprived of his paperwork sustenance, Bartleby starves to death.
While “Bartleby” has remained unmatched as a parable of white-collar alienation (it was adapted to the contemporary, cubicular, and computerized workplace as a film in 2001), its casual treatment of the actual substance of work makes it unexceptional in the history of the literature of the office. Like many office novels that have followed, it is primarily one of manners—or in Bartleby’s case, a lack thereof. It does not consider work itself, but feelings around work: as Sinclair Lewis put it, how “Each alley between desks quivers with secret romance as ceaselessly as a battle-trench, or a lane in Normandy.”
Office fiction is deliberately and narrowly construed as being about manners, sociability, gossip, the micro-struggles for rank and status—in other words, “office politics”—rather than about the work that is done in offices.
In fact, if there is a politics of the white-collar novel in the United States, it is this: office fiction is deliberately and narrowly construed as being about manners, sociability, gossip, the micro-struggles for rank and status—in other words, “office politics”—rather than about the work that is done in offices. There are major exceptions to this rule: the genre of the police procedural and the legal or medical thriller often make naturalistic drama out of the details of professional methods. So, too, do recent novels about finance. But well into the current era of the office novel—with books like Ed Park’s Personal Days (2008) and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007)—novelists place a premium on satirizing how shockingly little employees manage to get done in a day. At the center of their novels is the sheer emptiness of work—the fact not only that little gets done, but that one only remembers little about the little that does get done. “We had visceral, rich memories of dull, interminable hours,” runs the prologue of Then We Came to the End. “Then a day would pass in perfect harmony with our projects, our family members, and our coworkers, and we couldn’t believe we were getting paid for this.” But what projects? Paid for what? And then there’s Ferris’s first-person plural narrator who shrouds nearly the entire office in homogeneity—as if blank anonymity were the truest expression of white-collar existence.
After the Depression and the Second World War, the office novel solidified itself as a novel of development, or Bildungsroman—if an unusually neurotic and unstable version of it. The anxiety running through the midcentury novel has been referred to as a fear of “conformity,” but we might better understand it as part of a general discourse on the “crisis of man.” (Here I borrow from the analysis of a forthcoming book by Mark Greif, titled The Age of the Crisis of Man.) A rhetorical stance and way of thinking that saw human nature as somehow threatened by the new, world-altering coordinates of the Second World War and its aftermath (totalitarianism and the bomb), the white-collar subvariant emphasized the disappearance of the frontier-exploring spirit of the old middle classes as they were sucked into the giant, world-bestriding corporations that came to dominate American life. If in the early twentieth century the corporation was a social fact that could be contested, by midcentury it was an ineluctable necessity.
In following much of the left-wing inspired (though often liberal) social thought of the time, there was a growing fear in many of the midcentury office novels that the very basis of American character was being eroded, as the self-directing entrepreneurial spirit was transmuted into the extroverted soul that sought only to be esteemed in the eyes of society. Like The Lonely Crowd, The Organization Man, and White Collar, the office novels of the midcentury told the story of a new middle-class ethos of suave team-playing, which masked an obscure panic over dwindling independence. The idea that the American individual—and specifically the American male—had lost some degree of agency set the limits on the literary imagination, and the white-collar novel came to focus solely on this lost freedom.
Some novels took up the problem by blithely showing how it wasn’t so bad after all. Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit has been taken up in the popular imagination as a warning against the conformist pressures of corporate life. But its actual narrative discloses how the corporation is a flexible, caring organization that responds well to assertions of independent-mindedness. It is perhaps the closest the novel has ever come to being a variant of management theory. Every attempt the eponymous “Man” makes to buck the system rewards him: when Tom Rath refuses to take a personality test for his job application, he gets hired; when he refuses to praise a draft speech by his boss, he gets promoted; when he refuses a final promotion that would make him deputy to his boss, he earns the respect of his boss and gets more hours to spend with his family. This medium-sized ambition threatens to diminish his (still sizable) salary, but at the end of the novel, Rath’s fortune is assured when he manages to convince a judge to convert his grandmother’s suburban property into subdivisions, which he proceeds to sell for a tremendous sum. In the flurry of dei ex machina at the novel’s end, the notion that any serious antagonism could exist between the individual free spirit and the corporation is extinguished. In the end, Rath retains his independence; in fact, it is through successfully managing his relationship with the corporation that he earns it.
But many other midcentury novels depict a different narrative. Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, for example, arrives at a less happy conclusion: corporate life can’t be escaped. Assuming right from the start that its protagonist, Frank Wheeler, is doomed to pursue an empty and wasteful path, seeking consolations from the corporation that he despises rather than pursuing a riskier, artistic life in Paris (itself registered by Yates as a supreme cliché), Yates instead intimates that one’s independence can only come from writing, from Yates’s own justly famous lyricism taught in writing programs and emulated by writers everywhere and which he contrasts with cynical corporate plainspeak. In one passage, Yates reproduces the act of speaking into a Dictaphone, including the directed punctuation marks, as if to emphasize the sheer artificiality of the unadorned tone of marketing:
After putting a new belt in the Dictaphone machine, he leaned back again and said, “Copy for Veritype. Heading: Speaking of Production control, dot, dot, dot. Paragraph. Production control is, comma, after all, comma, nothing more or less than the job of putting the right materials in the right place at the right time, comma, according to a varying schedule. Period, paragraph. This is simple arithmetic, period. Given all the variables, comma, a man can do it with a pencil and paper, period. But the Knox ‘500’ Electronic Computer can do it—dash—literally—dash—thousands of times faster, period.”
This is one of the novel’s many virtuoso moments: it is a genuinely modernist attempt to represent a new medium of communication along the lines of Dos Passos, and one that still serves the overall theme of denigrating small-minded, self-satisfied midcentury corporate life. Literary style—Yates seems to argue—redeems, or supersedes, the vacuity of white-collar life, even if Yates, in doing so, comes to recognize that there really is no escaping from office work.
If Sloan Wilson’s was the archetype of the middlebrow novel that sought to harmonize the supposed dissonance between individual agency and the corporation, Yates’s bleaker model of the literary artist valiantly struggling with the dull materials of white-collar work was the one that set the tone for novels that followed. By the 1970s, the eminent respectability of the corporation had not survived either the buffeting of the sixties nor the oil shocks and economic decline of the later years. The Nixon administration’s startlingly candid 1972 survey, Work in America, found “much of the greatest work dissatisfaction in the country among young, well-educated workers who were in low paying, dull, routine, and fractionated clerical positions.” And these workers’ faith in the organization had declined. “Today, many white-collar workers have lost personal touch with decision makers, and, consequently, they feel estranged from the goals of the organizations in which they work,” the report’s authors wrote. “Management has exacerbated this problem by viewing white-collar workers as expendable: because their productivity is hard to measure and their functions often non-essential, they are seen as the easiest place to ‘cut fat’ during low points in the business cycle.”
White-collar blues took a toll on the basic struggle at the heart of the white-collar novel. The conflict between the individual and the organization no longer seemed so compelling, or so dramatic. The language and tone of business and the supposed naturalness of hierarchies and bureaucratic procedure took on the increasing quality of “bullshit,” and novels took on the task of exposing it as such. Perhaps the last white-collar novel to evoke midcentury concerns while presaging the strange epoch to follow was Joseph Heller’s 1974 masterpiece, Something Happened. Superficially a novel in the vein of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—Heller’s protagonist, Bob Slocum, like Tom Rath, works in the communications business—Something Happened abstracts even more powerfully from the details of work life. Slocum’s company is never named, nor is his work ever explained. A trickle of a plot regarding a promotion runs through the book, though the details focus predictably on Slocum’s dreary office flings and the psychodynamics of a family he despises. He despises his job as well and it is immediately clear that his company is run not through the soft coercion of organizational teamwork—the “conformity” of a previous generation—but by pure, inexplicable terror:
In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it.
This general, organized fear corresponds to Slocum’s own irrepressible need to please, the fact that he wants to emulate others to the point of evacuating the deep reserves of his private self: “There is this wretched habit I have of acquiring the characteristics of other people…. It operates unconsciously … with a determination of its own, in spite of my vigilance and aversion, and usually I do not realize I have slipped into someone else’s personality until I am already there.” The enormous dilation of Slocum’s inner life in Something Happened (the novel is punishingly long) seems to reflect his own agonizing search for meaning in organizational life, when it has very clearly vanished.
The affectless, dread-filled, deadpan style of Heller—equally present in Don
DeLillo’s 1971 semi-office novel Americana—would provide imaginative resources for novelists who came to deal with the transfigured world of capitalism that followed. We know the story: the dismantling of local industry in the United States, and the transnational moves and endless subcontracting that produced the complex industrial global supply networks that rule our lives, with office operations “leaning” a specialized core that could still be laid off and replaced at will. Faced with the terrifying dynamism of this new iteration of capitalism that we often call neoliberalism, novelists seemed to dig in their heels—they invested even more psychic energy in accounts of office life, while their disdain for this life meant that they did not portray the actual details of work.
Despite the bewildering transformations of the neoliberal era, little distinguishes it from the thematic gloominess and sense of abstraction that goes all the way back to “Bartleby.”
Thus, despite the bewildering transformations of the neoliberal era, little distinguishes it from the thematic gloominess and sense of abstraction that goes all the way back to “Bartleby.” In Personal Days, for example, Ed Park injects a significant amount of zaniness into his novel about an unnamed company, but with this exception: his is a purely abstract, metaphorical account of neoliberalism:
Our company was once its own thing, founded long ago by men with mustaches. After several decades it wound up, to its surprise, as the easternmost arm of an Omaha-based octopus. The tentacles eventually detached, or strangled each other, a few of them joining forces, most dying out altogether.
But if the atmosphere of total disaffection stays the same, the plot of the contemporary office novel is inverted: where a century of books explored the uneasy integration of people into organizations—their hiring and moving up in the ranks—the recent office novel begins with layoffs. A bathetic specter of uselessness comes to haunt even the most scornful employees, and a certain nostalgia for the slim meanings and the modest sociability that the corporation used to offer slips in. Ferris even ends his novel with a sentimental reunion of laid-off employees, who recall wistfully how much they actually derived meaning from the relationships they had with each other in the office they once hated. Something of this fear of uselessness pervades other novels of our time—for example, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station or Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?—where steady work is hard to come by, and affectlessness, generalized dread and wasted hours serve to reinforce a sense that the consolations of organizational life are not only no longer that consoling, but are just no longer there to be had.
Still mostly untapped by novelists, though, has been the actual substance of work and workers’ feelings about it—a novel in which, in the words of Studs Terkel, “people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” The late David Foster Wallace blazed a lonely and unfinished path with The Pale King, with its sublime portrait of the tedious labor of IRS employees. Wallace seemed to want to redeem a publicly maligned bureaucracy, in much the way that the sheer bulk of his heavily worn research testified to the unexampled heroism of the writer, who could make literature out of boring materials. If a new politics and a new novel of work still remains to be found, it might be found here: in the still submerged mass of what we do and how we feel about it.
Nikil Saval is an editor of n+1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday).
For more on Politics and the Novel, check out our Fall issue.