Sunday, April 13, 2008

Workin' 9 to 5

Work. It's something we all do, or are forced to endure. Pull up any user-driven site on the web, and you'll find it rife with frustrations (mainly petty) about work. From the notes about people stealing yogurt and staplers on to the often more serious gripes about unethical and even illegal behavior that can be found on the Craigslist job forum, they're everywhere.

I used to frequent the Craigslist JoFo, even when I wasn't looking. I realize that this makes me sound like a total douchebag, but I have a sort of sociological interest in working and people's attitudes towards their jobs and co-workers. Some of my favorite books deal with work. There's Studs Terkel's fascinating and fabulous Working (all the more interesting for being over 30 years old and containing interviews with many people whose occupations no longer exist or have changed beyond all recognition). There's the "memoir of a moran" The Working Stiff's Manifesto by Iain Levinson, which is still entertaining despite his refusal to learn. Add to these the novel by Joshua Ferris, And Then We Came To The End.

This book is set in a failing Chicago advertising agency during the late nineties and the first part of this decade. It's about office politics and intrigues in the face of layoffs and impending insolvency. The author uses an interesting device: he writes in the first person plural. We do this, we think that. The book contains an interview with him, in which he explains that his inspiration from this was derived from the new "corporate we." I can relate to that: I've often responded to emails from potential volunteers and talked about how excited "we" were to hear of their interest in "our" organization, and "we" would love their help, and "we" look forward to meeting them. And I think, what the fuck, do I have a mouse in my pocket? Number One, I'm the only who even knows of this person's interest, and number two, I can't honestly think of one co-worker who also may give a shit about it. But I continue to do it.

The "we" also gets at the peculiar group-think that often occurs in offices. At one point in the novel, all of the "core group" in the office becomes convinced that their boss has breast cancer, despite the total lack of evidence. They even spend an entire workday trying unsuccessfully to source the rumor. Yet, they are so convinced that one of them confronts her. It's an effective, well-done device. The only other instance I can think of where such a thing worked so well was in Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City which was written in the second person: You do this, you do that. But that's a post for another day.

The book is funny, but gets at a lot of truths about the modern work environment. The petty power struggles. The ridiculous rules and mores, the little attempts to rebel at them, and the consequences of them. This book has received a lot of critical acclaim, and I agree that it's worth checking out.

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