The Canadian Office in Literature

CanLit has its share of historical romances, coming-of age dramas and sweeping rural narratives, but very few stories focus on our urban experience, let alone how city-dwellers struggle to pay the bills. It’s only in the last few years that this trend has shifted, as writers realize that the day-to-day has as much heartbreak, and as is as ripe for satire as our domestic dramas. Still, you could argue that our Office-Lit is a little kinder here in the north — gentler than the TV series of Ricky Gervais, but with no less heart. Credit Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, who kicked things off in the optimistic ’90s, finding the human angle in our high-tech sector and mining the secret anxieties and aspirations of code monkeys everywhere.

Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland
In our cash-strapped times, Coupland’s characters’ rejection of materialism, their ennui with a technocratic bubble that didn’t quite live up to its promises might not seem to resonate. But in the mid 90’s, nothing made sense more than Microserfs, and for our current oppressed class of digital wage slaves it still rings true. Serfs follows a group of roommates grinding it out at the Microsoft campus, an extension of university life for those taught to eat, sleep and breathe code. That is until, one of their housemates (a reclusive genius living behind a door, surviving on flat foods slid under the crack) starts their own company making video games, offering more than a new job but a chance to take control of their lives. Also see J-Pod, Coupland’s millennial reversal on this theme, set at a Vancouver-based video game megacorp.

Accuracy 7/10: At times, more spiritually true than actually true. Still, Coupland’s insights into how work permeates our lives, in little details like “dusty kayaks in garages,” speaks volumes.
David Brent” Factor 6/10: Hard to call this one, as the boss is ever-present but never seen, and keeps the Serfs shackled just like any cult-leader.

The Big Dream, by Rebecca Rosenblum
Rebecca Rosemblum peeks into the 9-to-5 of the employees of a lifestyle magazine, Dream inc; delighting in the contrast the rosy-coloured world their publication promises and the lives they actually lead. A series of interconnected tales, each following a different worker as they criss-cross throughout the halls: A Tech Support dude celebrates that magic 3-month mark yet is unable to get his dental coverage approved to cover his toothache; a fact-checker finds herself at philosophical, and perhaps erotic, loose ends after the downsizing of all of her colleagues; and a cafeteria worker just tries to keep her head above water: “Oh you know, bursting into tears every twenty minutes. You?” Yet all this is told with a light-touch, a casual sense of inclusiveness, that reflects how our urban life actually is.

Accuracy 8/10: The cubicle walls obscure, emails are all-caps, and the office-fridge makes lunches mysteriously disappear. Yep, that’s it all right.
David Brent” Factor 8/10: In Rosenblum’s office, everyone has troubles, even the bosses. That doesn’t stop slimy executives from creeping on the fact-checker after her report on the benefits of “oral pleasure.”

Pulpy and Midge, by Jessica Westhead
A quietly quirky novel about a long-suffering office drone nicknamed “Pulpy,” who lives for the affection of his adorable, candle-selling wife Midge. Pulpy longs for the little things, like the maintenance guys to adjust his keyboard so it doesn’t jam into his thighs; or for his boss to give him that raise. Unfortunately, his new boss, and his lascivious wife have a few longings of their own — like taking the titular couple home for a game of naughty secretary. A little more generic than Coupland, if subtly weirder, Westhead nails the same theme that makes all office-lit resonate: the underdog finally having his day.

Accuracy 6/10: Familiar and on-point details hold Westhead’s office together, above the slightly mannered dialogue.
David Brent” Factor 10/10: Boss Dan is an unmistakable Alpha-male bully, all white teeth, crushing handshakes and hollow jocularity. How else do you rise to the top?

Overqualified, by Joey Comeau
Joey Comeau (writer for the surreal photo-webcomic deserves special mention here for a unique piece told through a series of fictional cover letters. Such as: “Dear Airwalk, sometimes it feels good to fall off your skateboard. It hurts like a fucker, and your body aches, and you can’t stop smiling.” Or, “Dear IBM, perverts are everywhere and I’m no exception.” But through these letters, a narrative emerges, of a young man unravelling from guilt after his brother is killed in a car accident. An unconventional mix of painful sentiment, surreal humor and unabashed id.

Accuracy 5/10: Comeau’s letters take aim at the absurdity of various corporations, making them less realistic (though still satisfying).
David Brent” Factor: Non-existent. Still, you get the sense that Comeau himself would be one monster to work for.

For more true-life tales of Office culture, you can check out my comic series, Freelance Blues, a supernatural monster-fighting adventure set in the world of work:

You can check out the first part of the Office in Literature series here.
Image courtesy of Phillie Casablanca

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