London and the South-East, By David Szalay

Reviewed,Brandon Robshaw
Sunday 13 April 2008 00:00 BST

To read most contemporary fiction, you'd think real life was something that went on outside of working hours. David Szalay's novel puts work firmly where, in the majority of people's lives, it belongs – slap-bang in the middle.

Paul Rainey is a salesman – a good one, but stuck in a crappy firm trying to sell advertising space in rubbishy business magazines nobody reads. The novel is brilliant on the day-to-day texture of the workplace – the rhythms, routines and procedures, the spite, envy, resentment and camaraderie, the all-embracing familiarity of the environment, the lunch-hours in the pub, the chorus of "How was your weekend?" on Monday morning, the shadowy sense one has of the lives of one's co-workers outside the office.

Paul is an embodiment of Thoreau's observation that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. As a result of a combination of his own stupidity, greed and disloyalty, he finds himself out of a job. His relationships with wife, children, friends and self change. He gets an unskilled manual job, befriends people he would never otherwise have acknowledged, and becomes involved in a plot against his supervisor. He becomes a different person.

London and the South-East is a funny, painful, graphic demonstration that our job is a crucial part of our identity. Even more crucially, perhaps, so is our home. This novel brings out the pathos of the middle-aged male, with his paunch, barely controlled drinking habit and feeble sex drive. It's compulsively readable, with a strangely convincing sense that all the events, unpredictable though they are, are what really would have happened, rather than what suits the plot.

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