Books: Smells like no team spirit

Eight Minutes Idle by Matt Thorne Sceptre pounds 10

Quick Kall Ltd, a call centre in Bristol that employs shiftless school-leavers on temporary contracts, is the setting for Matt Thorne's second novel, and it is an excellent choice for his brand of deadpan storytelling. Thorne typifies a new generation of young novelists for whom stories are born from tedium and disaffection. But for Thorne's characters, the stories they construct are ineffectual in relieving the monotony of their lives. For his readers, he offers a cruel, if unnecessary, reminder of the unremitting dreariness of the daily office grind. As Dan, Thorne's narrator, admits: "Miners were crushed by coal. We're crushed by boredom." Thorne is intent on displaying the deadening effects of the contemporary workplace, and the absurdly inane strategies that we deploy to cope with it.

Dan is a self-proclaimed drifter who shares a bedsit with his father, a retired gambler who stole his ex-wife's lottery winnings, and is hospitalised after a mysterious road accident which may or may not have been her act of revenge. When a weird room-mate is foisted upon him, Dan moves into the cloakroom of Quick Kall's offices, and reasons, "I'm getting on OK because I don't expect anything from life ... I'm not afflicted by nostalgia. Or false hope ... I'm living entirely in the present." It is this present that Thorne so meticulously describes. It may be dreary, but "as the only hours that count are the ones you get paid for", Thorne is justified in spinning it out.

At work, Dan passes the time gossiping and flirting with his colleagues, Teri (a passive-aggressive), Adrienne (a tough-talking, part-time DJ), Ian (his best friend, but only because they sit next to each other) and Gordon (an out-and-out fruitcake). Each of these characters is seemingly characterless; their inner lives are well protected, their subtly differentiated personalities conforming neatly to the demands of their work. Dan's engagement with the outside world is equally unrewarding: he watches pornography on cable TV, and pursues the illusory goal of "self-improvement", either in the form of reading Penguin Classics (of which he retains nothing) or indulging in self-analysis. His main skill is in deflecting confrontation, and to emphasise this point Thorne's prose is affectless and perfunctory, it lacks verve and deliberately allows no hint of Dan's individuality.

This may sound dull, but Thorne creates a fictional reality that is strangely compelling. A karaoke night out for Quick Kall's employees should provide a moment of high drama but, again, Thorne underplays it. In so doing, he illustrates the existential apathy into which Dan has sunk. When Teri strips to her underpants and collapses into a drunken coma, Dan realises he is in love with her, but his revelation dwindles into a final act of irresolution that defeats our expectations of a formal conclusion. It is a depressing point but it's impressively made.

Thorne is an extraordinary writer in that he does everything he can to lose his reader's interest, but still contrives to tell a story that successfully reveals the cynicism and despair underlying so much of popular culture. When he utilises the plot devices of the boy-meets-girl scenario, or the mystery thriller, they are inconclusive and almost incidental to the main thrust of the action. Which, for a novel's raison-d'etre, is so risibly low-key as to undermine the act of storytelling altogether. Dan's team "has bad stats and a detrimental effect on the atmosphere of the office"; they must improve their rate of calls successfully completed, and contrive a "team spirit". Their success is largely dependent on Dan's sexual desire (even this is not sacred) finding the right outlet (ie, shagging his team leader in the cloakroom where she finds him one night).

"I think it's the excess energy of all those unchallenged brains that makes an office such a sexual environment," Dan concludes. "I spend most days hiding my erection beneath the desk, hoping for a release that never comes." If the reader is suspended in an analogous position, it is because Thorne has written a courageous, testing novel about emotional blankness. There is no main event and no over-arching scheme. For his hero, victory consists of suppressing his individuality, and survival means being lost in the crowd.

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