The modern corporate office is to Ed Park’s debut novel “Personal Days” what World War II was to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22" -- a theater of absurdity and injustice so profound as to defy all reason. In “Personal Days,” the characters needn’t worry about being shot out of the sky by Nazis or slain by friendly fire. In “Personal Days,” life force drains slowly, interoffice memo by interoffice memo, one futile PowerPoint presentation at a time.
Park portrays Thoreau’s quote about the masses leading “lives of quiet desperation” as urban satire for the dot-com generation. It’s a satire at times so droll, so trenchant in its observations of corporate “culture” and human weakness, so pitch-perfect in dialogue, you can’t help but feel for the author. Maybe he’s a mind reader, or one of those writers so creative that concepts just spring from the head fully formed. But chances are, Park (who writes a monthly online science fiction column for the L.A. Times Book Review) drew from personal experience of really lousy jobs to create this bitter, pathetic world that makes you snort your Starbucks when laughing at unexpected moments.
The plot follows a group of office workers caught in the downsizing-call-it-death of a nameless Manhattan corporation. If the company produces any tangible product, useful service or has even a function, it’s lost on these characters, who are trapped in the machinations of office life, expressing themselves in a language increasingly reduced to abbreviations -- ASAP, FYI, UFO, CC and BCC are only the beginning.
The underlings in constant fear of layoff are Jill, Jenny and Pru, Laars, Lizzie and Jonah, Chris -- called Crease -- and Jack II, not to be confused with a laid-off employee called Jack I. Really, there’s no need to differentiate among them, because they all spring from the same mold: angst-ridden college grads in their late 20s and early 30s who lack any special passion, love or community to moor them. And that’s the point -- or so it would seem from the author’s choice to write the first section from the point of view of the Borg-like collective “we.” No one is more valuable than another; when one is canned, the others promise to “keep in touch,” then close ranks. They’re estranged from one another, and they’re all they’ve got.
The underlings’ “Catch-22" is that although they loathe their jobs, they live in knee-knocking dread of losing them -- perfect foils for bosses who secure their jobs by finding reasons for others to lose theirs. The bosses are distinctive only in their stupidity, insensitivity or cunning -- or all of the above: K., the faceless overlord a few floors up, heard only in memos; Maxine, a bombshell who confounds with vaguely threatening sexual harassment seminars and then with vapid puppy and kitten chain letters; and the Sprout -- otherwise called Russell, rhymes with Brussels, therefore Sprout. He’s the literary incarnation of Steve Carell’s “The Office” character, who never heard a get-ahead-in-business platitude he didn’t mistake for wisdom.
Then there is Graeme; no one quite knows what he does, only that he’s a horrible speller with repugnant personal hygiene, earning him the moniker Grime. He turns out to be more than he seems -- as do many of the characters, if only through the barest thread, the faint hint that all have within them desires and talents, hopes and principles that they are too fearful ever to give free rein to, and so remain stuck, unfulfilled, sheltered only by pettiness they mistake for irony.
Not all of this is told directly but instead is expressed in the structure of the book, broken into three sections. Here, form can’t be separated from meaning. The first part is organized mosaic-like, a series of fragments that conveys the disconnection of the characters and the random nature of their fates. The narrative continues in the second section in the form of an appendix and from the point of view of an omniscient seer, telling more about each character’s inner dramas and witnessing the increasing nonsensical order and weirdness of their days -- the human resources director who develops X-ray vision after Lasik surgery; the janitor called “The Unnamable,” whose presence suddenly seems all-pervading.
The last part is the most curious: an e-mail from a character seemingly peripheral to a more central figure who has just been fired. It’s a stream-of-consciousness monologue astonishing for its revelations about the e-mailer’s true nature and his love for the co-worker but mostly for revealing the cloak-and-dagger politics that was going on in the office -- unbeknownst to the others.
The e-mail address’ “mailer-daemon” line, that dastardly signature of undeliverable e-mails, underscores what should be the poignancy of this part -- that meaning and genuine emotion will remain forever unexpressed. However, the structural cleverness so overwhelms the storytelling by this point that what should be the pinnacle of this inventive tale seems merely its footnote.
But better to try and stumble than not to try at all -- as one of these lame bosses might say. “Personal Days” proves that Park may be in line to fill the shoes left by Kurt Vonnegut and other satirists par excellence. *