Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Working titles

I have, at the moment, an advanced degree of self-consciousness about the subject of work, seeking as I am a permanent berth and temping in various places in the meantime.  This has led me to dwell upon the relatively small number of books (of which I am aware) which feature paid employment as their main theme, which is perhaps surprising given the financial and temporal significance this activity has for most of us.  Many novels and stories are obliged to make reference to work as part of their mimetic weft, but I thought it would be jolly to construct a select list of those in which toil was the overarching subject.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by the British experimental novelist B.S. Johnson, is the first to clock in to my memory. Johnson may be best known for The Unfortunates which is a series of unbound chapters (presented in a box) which - aside from the helpfully-labelled 'First' and 'Last' - the reader is invited to read in any order that takes their fancy.  Christie Malry, on the other hand, takes conventional narrative form and describes what occurs when the titular, deranged antihero applies the well-established accounting technique (which he learns in his first job, in a bank) to (as he sees it) people's moral value and the fate they have 'earned' through their behavioural lapses.  A good deal of the novel takes place in a sweet factory and (it says in my Goodreads review, so it must be true): 'In its especially good evocation of the vacuous nature of modern working life, and its faux-naive style, it prefigures Magnus Mills, among others.'

Moving to Mr. Mills (see how prescient I can be on Goodreads), his The Scheme For Full Employment presents - like many of his novels - a fable-like scenario, the character of which is at once surreal, sinister and satirical.  The novel describes an industry whose purpose is the complex movement of boxes by a fleet of vans so that said boxes can then be collected and replaced by the same vehicles - something like a corporate Ouroboros.  Mills uses this idea to describe patterns of conformity and deviance, capturing as he does so the culture of a certain kind of British workplace.

David Lodge's Nice Work is a delightful comic novel (later converted into an excellent TV series) which blends pastiche and affectionate parody, as a self-consciously academic feminist lecturer and an aggressively practical engineering manager are thrown into each others' lives by a 'shadowing' scheme.  All of Lodge's narrative expertise is on display as the pair move from unthinking disdain for each other and (each other's professional world) into grudging respect and beyond.

To conclude this very brief site inspection, it's worth nodding to the presence of the 9 to 5 in poetry. Philip Larkin's superb choice of a toad as a metaphor for the opressive necessity of earning a living probably stands out for most of us, but there are some lines of Auden which I have always loved as an example of his ability to conjure remarkable images, feelings and thoughts in an apparently casual register:

   Caesar's double-bed is warm
   As an unimportant clerk
   On a pink official form.

Your own recommendations are warmly welcomed.

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