HARVILL SECKER £12.99 (119PP) £11.69 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897
JONATHAN CAPE £12.99 (241PP) £11.69 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

Gross Margin, by Laurent Quintreau
Personal Days, by Ed Park

Two reasons not to give up the day job

It's official: working in an office is hell. But it wasn't always this way in fiction. In Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning (1967), staff at least did something for a living – even if it was just compiling the "Nature Notes". In Douglas Coupland's Microserfs (1995) and JPod (2005) there was a sense of solidarity – if only against King Bill. But in many of their recent successors, work is an interminable torment offering none of these consolations. Maybe we can blame David Brent.

The 11 executives who gather around a boardroom table in Laurent Quintreau's Gross Margin have little hope of salvation. The book caused Le Monde's reviewer to "howl with laughter", but clearly the French have a subtly different sense of humour. The 11 sharp vignettes contained in this slim volume are many things – dark, philosophical, depressing, provocative, harsh – and Polly McLean's translation makes light work of the free-associating tumble of language. But either something is missing in the translation of "the dissemination of revolutionary ideas in the work of Marx and Lenin"; or the French critic was easily amused. The closest thing to a laugh-out-loud moment is: "I couldn't do a trades unionist, so full of themselves".

Trades unions and sex are among the primary preoccupations of Quintreau's unpleasant assembly of characters as they tune in and out of their morning meeting, absorbed in their own misanthropic thoughts. Each chapter recites the interior monologue of one of the executives, full of non-sequiturs with no full stops. Quintreau begins with a quote from Dante – "Midway through this way of life we're bound upon/ I woke to find myself in a dark wood/ Where the right road was wholly lost and gone" – and the format mirrors that of The Divine Comedy.

The first circle of Hell is represented by Meyer, the virtuous pagan. The second is the lustful charmer, Pujol. The most pathetic character is self-obsessed Tissier, who threads his professional paranoia with gripes about his personal situation: "custody of the kids... my haemorrhoids are still bothering me... I'm tired... I've sailed merrily past the fourteen stone mark... my wife is leaving me and my mistress has taken it into her head to magic up a harassment case..." When the final character, who represents Paradise, considers, "I'd so love to kiss them, cuddle them, take a gun, aim it at their head and then shoot just to one side," you slightly wish he'd miss. He continues: "to make them realise that nothing is serious, we are just passing though."

For the characters in the more light-hearted Personal Days, however, transience is precisely the problem. Ed Park's debut shows a very different side of workplace relationships – one in which colleagues sometimes actually seem to like each other – but the threat of redundancies motivates the plot here, too. Rather than 11 circles, this novel is divided into three Couplandesque sections: Can't Undo; Replace All and Revert to Saved. But just as in Gross Margin, redemption comes at the end.

Perhaps unfortunately for Park, Personal Days bears many similarities to Joshua Ferris's widely acclaimed recent novel, Then We Came to the End. Both are set in American offices in which nobody seems to do any work and in which there is a looming threat of redundancy – or "walking Spanish down the hall", as Ferris's characters put it. Both are in the first person plural. Whereas the French novel describes 11 individuals set against each other, the subject of the two Americans is the cowering mass of everyman. "His them is pretty much the mirror image of our us", realises the narrator of the final, first-person chapter in Personal Days – which also has no full-stops.

While it lacks the depth and pathos of Then We Came to the End, Park's novel offers a very modern insight into the way we work now. There's the strange, modernist poetry of a trail of email subject headings, and the "instant folklore" of the internet age. "When you feel a tingling in your fingers it means that someone's Googling you", decides a character called Jack II. But most of all, the intensity of office relationships is uncomfortably brought to life. "You become a permanent installation in your underlings' minds," Park writes about the peculiar experience of being a boss. "Every night the odds are that at least one of them dreams of you."

When Then We Came to an End was published last year, many critics called for more novels set in offices, where most western adults spend the majority of our waking lives. And here they come. In an unrepresentative sample of those published this year: in France they while away meetings thinking about Marx and mistresses; in America they ask their therapists for help with their life coaches; in Britain (according to David Szalay's London and South East, at least) we spend most of our working hours in the pub.

Reading too many of these novels together can make you oversensitive about office life. You look again at the "frustrated copywriter whose real life [is] being a failed novelist working on a small, angry book about work" (Ferris). You want to warn most of them not to give up the day job. But, given the strength of novels such as these, you also want to advise struggling writers: get a job.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent