Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Agency Life

All life we work but work is a bore / If life's for livin' then what's livin' for?
- Ray Davies, The Kinks, "Oklahoma U.S.A"

EM rightfully called it out over dinner last night - maybe I'm not cut out for office work, because my tolerance for bullshit is too low. Maybe that's why, despite the neat literary narrative trick that Joshua Ferris' employs in his quite enjoyable Then We Came To The End, in which our perspective is implied and subsumed in the narrator's royal 'we,' I still most closely identified with Tom Mota. Yes, vulgar and slightly unhinged Emerson-quoting, clown-suit wearing, paintball-shooting Tom Mota. Imprison, then enlisted, then dead Tom Mota. Also, the star of the show.

Let me take two steps back. First, yeah, I'm not sure I enjoy spending all of my time and creative energy working for other people, but that said, I'm pretty good at it, and I've thus far managed a string of pretty reasonable gigs - enterprising, creative, and cubicle-free. So, in a world of complaining, I can't complain. And the work, while often too consuming of my time and mental energy, has also been reasonably intellectually challenging and has, if not added to the sum total of good in the world, probably not detracted from it. And I've made some friends and won some respect along the way. And probably learned a few things.. So, as Carl Spackler might say, I've got that going for me. Which is nice.

Second, in our lives, we spend maybe eight hours a day working and eight hours sleeping? Something like that? So it is amazing how few really useful or interesting novels there are about work (or sleeping, for that matter). Particularly good old fashioned, 20th century American office work. TV shows? Yes. Movies? Maybe. I guess those are the appropriate media. But novels? Nicholson Baker's Mezzanine, maybe? Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, perhaps, although that had a good bit of sex, insanity, marital strife, and abortion in it, none of which really constitute much of my work day. Some Updike that I've missed, perhaps?

Which is what makes Joshua Ferris' Then We Came To The End such a pleasurable read. It is slightly cartoonish, but does a great job of elevating the everyday drama of office life to the appropriate levels of meaning, humor, and warmth. The work, a team of creatives in a large advertising agency in Chicago on the downswing of the dot-com boom, is surely recognizable to anyone who has worked in a creative field, or heck, in any professional services industry. The odd contours of office camaraderie, the strange insistence of minor professional triumphs and failures into your psyche, the tchotchke's that stand-in for personality and a personal touch, the elevator banks, and the office lighting.

It is all wincingly recognizable, and all laid comically bare. The read is quick and well-paced, and wrapped with enough grazing passes at the soul of the organization man and the small flourishes of craft (those that put the meta in fiction), to balance being an enjoyable subway read (as you head to your office) with taking heavy-handed swipes at the raison d'etre of your workaday life. Certainly recommended if you've ever had the pleasure of nine to five work.

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