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Gross Margin, by Laurent Quintreau
Personal Days, by Ed Park
Two reasons not to give up the day job
Friday 25 July 2008
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.
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