Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Office life brought to book

The titles of Alain de Botton's most recent books of philosophical inquiry do their author an injustice. I was a big fan of his early novels, and enjoyed his musings on The Art of Travel, but was hacked off with The Consolations of Philosophy and couldn't be bothered with Status Anxiety or The Architecture of Happiness. I was intrigued by The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which has just come out in paperback, and am glad I gave into the impulse.

I suspected it may feature coping strategies for the modern workplace: bullied by your boss? Try this philosopher. Instead, it's a sweet investigation of how most of us spend most of our days. The section on tuna fishing made me think about the precise pressures of a 24-hour global economy in a way I'd never done before - further brought home by the effect of the volcanic ash crisis on Kenyan farmers, for instance. And I enjoyed his theory that sexual harrassment protocols exist in the workplace to prevent us spending all our time thinking about - or having - sex with colleagues.

There are times when de Botton allows himself the slightly whimsical fantasising I first so admired about him, and I still wish he'd return to writing novels, but the office has been fairly well mined in literature. A couple of years ago, Joshua Ferris was feted for his debut novel set in a creative agency, Then We Came to the End. I'm undecided whether I don't like his book because it makes me feel the characters are my colleagues - in which case, why read it - or whether he succeeds precisely for that reason. There's a lurking suspicion that he chose ad-land not because he may have worked there, I don't know if he did, but because it may be more interesting than many other jobs out there, whether the day-to-day concerns are the same or not; Microserfs for the new millennium, perhaps, showing how little has changed, or how prescient Douglas Coupland was, in 1995, as he usually is.

Nicholson Baker and Michael Bracewell have placed the minutiae of the workplace under the microscope, in The Mezzanine and Perfect Tense, respectively (the latter being one of the most acute examinations of the modern office you could read). No better portrayal of the hell of work can be found than in Kafka, whose name has of course become a byword for bureaucracy gone mad thanks to such nightmarish visions as The Trial (about a bank clerk). In short story The Metamorphosis, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa fears the arrival of his chief clerk when Samsa famously wakes transformed into a cockroach and cannot go to work.

As much as it's true in life, a character's job may serve as a pigeonhole; more often, it's one of many problems from which to flee, as in Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar or John Lanchester's very funny Mr Phillips. BS Johnson's bookkeeper, at the centre of Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (yes, it does sound like a porn movie), keeps stock of his accounts before taking revenge. We might, however, follow the insouciant example of Herman Melville's Bartleby, who relies on one stolid response to every request made of him: 'I would prefer not to.'

1 comment:

  1. Michael Bracewell's 'Perfect Tense' is a really under-rated book. I found it quite gripping, which I wouldn't have expected from the subject matter.