White collar heroes in fiction can help us fend off the office blues

Week in Books

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"I would prefer not to.” It’s a statement I came across when publisher Melville House sent me a branded bag. It had just that printed on the front, a beguilingly unexplained sentiment that drew quizzical looks from passers-by. Any greater significance was lost on me until I read Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener. Told from the perspective of the owner of a legal firm, his employee Bartleby is described as “the strange creature that I kept at my office”, who, when he first delivers this statement in a “singularly mild, firm voice”, leaves his boss shaken. “I would prefer not to” is really all he says. We’ve all wished to say it, in one form or another. Imagine if we could.

How long would we last? In Bartleby’s case, he simply refuses to leave the premises, even when he is sacked for his polite refusals to do any work whatsoever. His protest is quiet-voiced, tenacious and finally, so alarming for the proprietor that he flees from Bartleby. There is a little bit of Bartleby in all of us. Never more so than now, when office ennui is upon us in this bleak, post-festive month of sobriety and self-denial. Blue Monday – the official observation for the most depressing day of the year – is due on 26 January. Those giving up alcohol for the month may be driven back to the bottle by it.

At least we have literature to save us. Melville’s story is highly recommended for anyone with a spare couple of commuting hours for its wit and strangeness but also for its tacit observation that while we may take the same seat next to the same person at work all week, we tend not to know them beyond a few surface characteristics. Among many colleagues there is that mix of physical proximity and inward loneliness that Bartleby could be feeling in one of his long, statue-like stares.

Is our work identity a thing we put on every morning, along with our office suits? asks Robert Rowland Smith in his philosophy book Breakfast with Socrates, which regards work, among other  things, from the prism of Marx’s theory of labour exchange and Hegel’s concepts of master and slave. Smith recounts the true story of a 16th century French peasant, adapted for film in The Return of Martin Guerre, about a man who goes to work and is missing for six years, after which someone claiming to be him returns to take up with his wife: “All of this means that if you do arrive at work as the same person who left your house, it’s somewhat a matter of chance.”

And then there is office bullying, brought to life in Jonas Karlsson’s surreal, funny and unsettling new novel, The Room, featuring Björn, an ambitious but socially awkward man whose colleagues turn on him. It is his eccentricity that makes him brilliant in his job, yet colleagues do all they can to stifle it with peer pressure and a narrow insistence on office convention, “the semi-social state of casual interaction involving endless cups of coffee and small talk that characterises most workplaces”, and that is so effective in “dragging a creative individual down”. When office existence leaves imagination so squeezed out, where can our “true” self go?

Björn finds a surreal outlet for his. Meanwhile, it makes you wish for those Silicon Valley outfits that reconfigure offices so structures of “work” resemble “play”. In Karlsson’s world, no one is quite ready for the imagination through which his oddball protagonist is trying to liberate his desk-job. It’s strangely uplifting to read office ennui fiction, at a time when winter darkness surrounds us. Bartleby and Björn are our white-collar heroes, ready to give their lives to the cause. Long may they live, in fictional offices and otherwise.

David Mitchell’s inspiration in 140 characters

Novelists have been writing fiction in 140-characters for some time now, but it was still surprising this week to hear David Mitchell declare his own Twitter accomplishment: the story that he began as a playful social media offering last year has now become its own stand-alone novel, Slade House, or at least the first part of it. The “reality-warping” tale, to be published for Halloween, came directly out of Mitchell’s dalliance with Twitter, and hastened the novel-in-development process that might ordinarily take him years, according to the publishing director at Sceptre. It does all rather stop social-media sceptics in their tracks. While 28 eminent writers petition for nature words to be put back into the Oxford Junior Dictionary (they have been replaced by words such as blog and chatroom), it’s a reminder that new technology can’t be dismissed outright as the enemy of creativity.