The Office in Literature

Despite being the place where we spend the majority of our waking hours, there are comparatively few examples of popular culture based on our working life. This is perhaps why those that do manage to capture it credibly — Mike Judge’s film Office Space, Ricky Gervais’s TV series The Office — become such instant cult classics. In literature, it’s the same, with very few writers willing to chart those territories. Since 2008, I’ve been writing the comic book Freelance Blues, about a young guy cursed with a series of terrible jobs, made worse by the fact that his bosses are supernaturally evil. It’s a chance to explore not just freaky real-life experiences (ever banged a freezer?) but to really capture that peculiar, often dehumanizing dynamic that develops in our workplaces. This project has made me attuned to those writers who have likewise taken an interest in our 9 to 5’s, and have found the more satirical, or fantastic the premise, the more painfully true they become. Here are a few of my favourites, rated for their accuracy and for their horrible boss, or “David Brent” factor.

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville
Ah, Bartleby! Melville’s masterpiece may be Moby Dick, but did you the same author was also responsible for the original Occupy Wall Street? This short story is decidedly urban, set in a New York City law office, and told from the p.o.v. of the boss, a fussy lawyer who employs a particularly industrious scrivener (a sort-of 19th century human photocopier) named Bartleby. This employee turns the world of work on its head by refusing to do any request outside of his copying  with the curious non-reply: “I would prefer not to.” This passive resistance, neither yes nor no, soon grows to encompasses all tasks, all applied with “cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance.” Talk about work to rule. Bartleby is either a one-note creation or the most inscrutable character to inhabit American letters. His refusal to commit allows him to remain an enigma to the bitter end.
7/10: In 1856, the modern office was already there, with wooden screens instead of cubicle walls.
“David Brent” Factor 4/10: So-rated for empathy, yet no compunctions about snooping through employee’s things.

Through the Habitrails, by Jeff Nicholson
Cartoonist Jeff Nicholson’s disturbing series of graphic short stories illustrating his hours spent as a “creative” — a person who draws generic advertisement and illustrations at an agency — all the while being literally ‘tapped’ with a spigot that is spiked in his head by an anonymous boss. Nicholson’s vision of office life is surreal; yet its symbolic language is oddly on the money (creatives have no mouths, sales people are all grins) and filled with the rage of a worker bee pushed too far. The title refers to a series of gerbil runs: plastic tubes that allow tiny terrified animals to shoot along corridors of their cubicles, a perfect metaphor for modern working life. Essential reading for anyone who has felt their job was sucking the life out of them.
8/10: Surreal, but real. And fucking painful.
“David Brent” Factor 9/10: The Corporation owner is guilt- and remorse-free. Chilling.

Kings of Infinite Space, by James Hynes
An office-horror novel that asks, in a time of epic corporate downsizing, what will any man do to stay employed? In the Texas Department of General Services, demoted professor now full-time temp Paul Trilby gets the urge to join the payroll as a technical writer. But something is not quite right about this office place, from the bottomless recycling bins to the strange scrabbling sounds he hears in the drop ceiling, along with the fact that no one would be caught dead working there on the weekend. More terrifying than anything: the awkwardness of lunchtime conversations with coworkers. Hey, you don’t want to know these people — you just work there. James Hynes gives his premise room to breathe, digging deep into the current workplace environment, from shitty drop ceilings to paranoid tension to choked atmosphere. The twist is inspired by classic science fiction in the style of H.G. Wells.
7/10: Palpable. Exaggerated, but only slightly — makes it more terrifying.
“David Brent” Factor
6/10: Clueless, corporate-malaprop-heavy, yet ultimately harmless.

Find out more about Freelance Blues, a supernatural monster-fighting adventure set in the world of work:

Image courtesy of GiantGinkgo.


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