A former office mate of mine, reporting for duty on his first day at the company, was taken in hand by somebody in HR for a pro forma introduction to the company president. It was around lunchtime, and the chief executive was off having a sandwich somewhere, so the introductions were never made — with the curious consequence that my friend was left with a mistaken impression as to who the company president was. Deep was his disenchantment, 18 months later, when he realized that, mentally, he had been attaching his corporate allegiance to an aloof, distinguished-looking mid-level nobody, instead of to the short and blandly smiling man who actually ran the place. “That guy,” he grumbled, “I could have some respect for. But this guy — !”
There are stories like this all through Ed Park?s debut novel, Personal Days, — and many much worse. In a nameless Manhattan office, a group of be-cubicled peons huddle in fear on the staticky carpeting. They are proofreaders, perhaps, or copywriters, or fact checkers — at any rate their work (never discussed) is unfascinating and redolent of squandered IQ. Neon-blanched, sharing an intimacy that cannot thrive — that dies immediately, in fact — outside the strange conditions that created it, they have nonetheless made a world: pet names, in-jokes, the minor voodoo of office life. There is a Good Starbucks and a Bad Starbucks. They suck down cigarettes on a patch of sidewalk called The Republic of Smokistan. They blog about their workplace crushes. They might even be happy. But now all that is changing. Their boss, whom they know as the Sprout, is shaking things up: his agenda is inhuman and obscure, but there will be a body count. Firings! First, timid Jill is exiled to Siberia — “a spacious cubicle on the sixth floor, miles from anyone else, next to the door leading to the fire exit.” She soon disappears altogether. Then a man by the name of Graham (dubbed “Grime” by the gang, in recognition of his British accent) arrives, and everything begins to go — as the Brits say — pear-shaped.
Readers of Nicholson Baker?s The Mezzanine, whatever else they retain of that excellent little book, rarely forget the “loud curt fart like the rap of a bongo drum” that is overheard in the office men?s room. There?s nothing as startlingly fresh minted as that in Personal Days, but then freshness is not quite the point: Park, following George Saunders, is at pains to mimic the weird consensus idiolect of our time, the little stumps of computer-stained lingo that we get around on. (“Lars had to Google Fleet Street. He could have sworn it was where Sherlock Holmes lived and even bet Pru five bucks, but he was so wrong.”) A single truly pristine phrase or image would throw the whole thing out of whack, like a unicorn appearing by the water cooler.
Which is not to say that Park?s writing lacks exquisiteness. Any office environment worth the name, as every sentient drone knows, is fundamentally self-ironizing; one moves down the crackling hallways with that sleepwalker sensation of deeds that repetition has made automatic, and words already ritualized by use. Personal Days is almost scriptural in this respect. Behold, for example, the Friday afternoon departure of the Sprout:
There?s a spring in his step, a thin jacket draped over his arm, and a bag from the Italian bakery dangling from a finger.
Have a good one, he says to Jenny, closing his door and locking it smoothly.
Later, man, he barks at Jonah while turning the corner by the mail room, the very picture of managerial friendliness.
Any fun weekend plans? he asks Pru, not quite pausing as he heads to the elevator. She says she?ll probably see a movie and go to a party in Brooklyn. He nods and says, Excellent plan — don?t do anything I wouldn?t do.
Park is a near-clinical humorist and parodist, in a vein that will doubtless have the odd reviewer hailing Personal Days as “LOL-funny!” The Sprout, always in a rush, sends emails of quite startling illiteracy: “Thnaks, for the heads-op! Aprecite it.” Jill, out in Siberia, begins a strange compilation of corporate wisdom, carefully transcribing the apothegms of authors like Randall Slurry (Office Politics 101) and M. Halsey Patterson (Yes, I Drank The Kool-Aid — And I Went Back for Seconds). “Don?t be the one who says, I told you so,” counsels Slurry. “Tell them so to begin with. Tell them often.” And from The Manager?s Bible: The New Memory System for Daily Insights, by Wayne V. Hammer with Juliette Earp, Jill draws the following Eastern-tinted consolation: “Confusion is inevitable. Ride the wave.”
Park, of course, made all this up; indeed, it?s worryingly possible, within the context of the novel, that Jill made it all up too. The fragmented narrative and shaggy-dog tangents of Personal Days operate in the service of a seeping, slow-build paranoia, of the sort that has sustained whole seasons of ABC?s Lost. The firings and humiliations continue; the character called Grime takes on unnerving new properties. At an after-work gathering someone gets his tooth knocked out by accident. Inter-cubicle relations are further complicated and etiolated by erroneously sent emails, crashed servers, unopenable documents, and fitful blogging. What is Operation JASON? By the book?s final section, which takes a dramatic, Cheever-esque detour into a first-person voice, we are beginning to be acquainted with a deep and lasting level of derangement. These places, in case anyone needs to be reminded, drive you crazy.
Park is one of the founding editors of the literary monthly The Believer, a publication I have always resented for its peculiar and persistent quality of delightfulness, like that of a gifted child whose prattle is distracting his parents from serving the drinks. In the wake of his novel, though, I see that I will probably have to revise this sullen prejudice, because Personal Days is another thing altogether — neither anxiously nor prodigiously brilliant, but quite maturely and pitilessly so.