Work Sucks. Does the Work Novel Have To?

Contemporary workplace fiction offers more defeat than critique, more wasteland than revolution 

By Kameel Mir

a red stapler on a black background

The experience repeats itself: I pick up a new novel lauded for its reimagining of labor, and over the course of a couple hundred pages, I am led to the edge of an apocalypse where the sole survivor of the blast, the plague, the fade, the revolt, is work.

A factory as wide as the world churns on as its workers turn into crows, moss, or vanish (Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, 2013). A woman finds such fulfillment in her job at a convenience store that she commits “her very cells” to the grocery (Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, 2016). Amid global ruin, the “Last Temp” covers for everyone and everything, “filling in for all that was gone” (Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, 2020). Another temp finds “release” in a limbo of unemployment that spans her “circle of time on Earth” (Halle Butler’s The New Me, 2019). When society is obliterated by a zombifying plague, a woman shows up to work daily until she is locked out and nudged from her productivity nest into the apocalypse (Ling Ma’s Severance, 2018).  

These novels, often surrealist or sci-fi, depict work with a repetitive nihilism meant to expose the mundane horror of “the grind.” But rather than stimulating any challenge to the conditions they portray, they instead stultify critique by reminding us over and over again that employment is a passive, petty, powerless state. Together, these novels deepen our imaginative paralysis; their litany of drain-circling plots stir a vortex that swallows alternative narrative options for laborers at the bottom rung, posing the end of the world as the only way to escape the toil of contemporary work. To pioneering extents, they invent ways for the world to end on the terms of market logic, yet their inventions never go so far as to upend that logic — to disprove the claim that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

I am led to the edge of an apocalypse where the sole survivor of the blast, the plague, the fade, the revolt, is work.

Among the millennial work novels that treat that maxim as a foregone conclusion, we can track common narrative features that accentuate their dismal point. The protagonist, usually female, is a drone with no institutional power. Work is the nucleus of her world and shapes the plot of her life. Her mordant, ribald, philosophizing mind is her escape from work and the yielding posture it requires her to strike, but ultimately the energies of her intellect are as hemmed in the office as her body. If she is motivated to rebel, it is through thought alone, admitting to heretical disinterest in work (The Factory) or picking apart the sad outfits of coworkers (The New Me). Such mild rebellion is a reliable trope by now, privileging the mental over the material. 

Olga Ravn’s The Employees obviates even these strategies by anticipating an employer that can read workers’ thoughts. Billed as “a stinging critique of life governed by the logic of productivity,” The Employees takes place on board the Six Thousand Ship — essentially Amazon in space. The titular employees, consisting of humans and “humanoids” bred to maintain the ship, are tasked with logging their observations and feelings in response to mysterious “objects” brought onboard for study; anonymous “statements” delivered by the workers for this purpose are the narrating tool of the novel. Management’s objective is to determine how interactions with these objects “might give rise to permanent deviations in the individual employee.” When one worker observes that the objects employ a silent language to say “that they are many, that they’re not one, that one of them is the reiteration of all of them,” we sense that this budding awareness of collective power is one such permanent deviation.

These thought crimes bubble sporadically among employees until a group of humanoids log reflections that simmer with menace. The eventual boiling point passes promptly: A humanoid expresses sneering regret at having killed a manager, and pages later we learn that the crew has been “reduced” by six members. Shortly after that, a staffer “regrets to inform” that the entire ship will need to be terminated and regenerated anew; they also admit they “are fatigued and have awaited this juncture with unspoken longing.” Even the employees want the novel to be over.

Alongside The Employees, publisher New Directions reissued a 1935 progenitor of the “office novel”: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith. The book follows the roving mind of Pompey Casmilus, a secretary who spends her work hours jotting on legal pads a glut of daydreams and musings on literature, fascism, marriage, sex, and death. Smith’s prose deliberately outwits the drudgery of her plot. Beyond strolls with former lovers, outings with friends, home life with her aunt, and a trip to Germany, Pompey does little else besides enact an “animula blandula vagula [charming, wandering little soul] of the office” under the auspice of her benevolent employer, Sir Phoebus Ullwater. 

Between these novels’ depictions of the psychic toll of labor, what differs is the level of friction between worker and work. Novel on Yellow Paper was written when stream of consciousness was still a relatively new technique in modernist literature; in Smith’s book, finding freedom in one’s consciousness while still on the clock is not only time theft, but an open door to all that is more than work. Pompey’s narration teems with references to the classical literature and art she consumes off (or possibly on) the job, and while the book conjures its own formal container of yellow legal paper, that is the only way work is shown to constrain Pompey. 

Ravn and Smith both use narrative devices that draw us into the office, figuratively, but Ravn’s method puts readers in the managers’ position by having us read the employees’ reports, implicating us in the downward spiral she constructs. Ravn conscripts her characters into her narrative machine, turning their own voices against them by directing all in-scene speech towards their employers. No matter how much workers may snarl about the ship directors’ “inadequate plans,’’ their threats are defanged under management’s ultimate control. With no uncompromised window into employees’ private lives, we must watch the narrative machine consume its cogs and bear our complicity in Ravn’s grim design.

Even the employees want the novel to be over.

While work novels have innovated ways to enmesh and reflect their audiences across decades, the contemporary iterations consistently deny us a way out. In The Employees, the uprising fails, and fortifies the capitalist structure, proving its infinite ability to renew. This aesthetic focus on failure is as binding as the capitalist system itself, feeding into a trend of fiction of disempowerment that mostly uses genre to itemize capitalism’s many iterations of immiseration rather than unsettle work with the imaginative tools of fiction. The powerlessness at the core of these narratives is what proves that these novels are not exactly “critiques” of labor — instead, they run on what philosopher Paolo Virno calls “sentiments of disenchantment,” which can integrate discontented workers further into capitalism. Their anxiety is channeled into productivity, paranoia into need to please, despondency into acceptance. All the more telling, then, that these novels tend to use women workers to animate their arcs of submission. 

Why is mutiny not engaged more often as a fictional possibility, especially in new works of purportedly feminist literature? The critic Jennifer Wilson wrote recently that debt has robbed many contemporary novels of forward-moving plot by trapping their protagonists in a foreclosed future. Perhaps, in a similar vein, the proliferation of the professional managerial class has encouraged authors to muddy the lines between fictional workers and managers (Ravn forcing the reader to share the employer’s perspective is an exemplar). Since authors are telling the tale of capitalism to a mixed-class readership, perhaps it is harder to depict the brew of revolution with the same inciting clarity as, for example, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: “To Jurgis… They were a gigantic combination of capital, which had crushed all opposition, and overthrown the laws of the land, and was preying upon the people.”

If realist work fiction could take on the tangled nature of any confrontation with late capitalism, rather than fetishizing the depravity of surrender to the system, then speculative workplace fiction could leap from that point, give us new fables and dreams instead of new wastelands. A 2013 short story by Karen Russell called “Reeling for the Empire” comes to mind, as it depicts mutiny based in sisterhood. An unnamed Japanese narrator is turned into a silk worm against her will and imprisoned with other such “kaiko girls.” When one of their group dies from “striking” by refusing to expel her silk, the other reelers “grab for [the legs]” of the overseer who comes to dispose of her body. The narrator stages a successful revolt, convincing her fellow workers to entrap the overseer. As the narrator weaves him shut in a cocoon, she “names the workers of the Nowhere Mill all the while: Nishi. Yoshi. Yuna. Uki. Etsuyo. Gin. Hoshi. Raku. Chiyoko. Mitsuko. Tsaiko. Tooka. Dai.” 

Beyond that moment of bittersweet triumph, we have no idea if the kaiko girls make it out of their jobs alive. But because we get to watch them bond, to participate in Russell’s invention of their agency, fear of the worst does not immobilize our reading experience. When the narrator chants her coworkers’ names, it recalls the rhetorical practices of abolitionist and anti-racist movements that galvanize us through grief. For art to acknowledge our loss and reveal our entrapment, it does not also have to reproduce those same robberies of possibility. For future installments of imagistically sharp and emotionally trenchant novels about work, aesthetics of defeat are not our only option. 

Kameel Mir is a writer, editor, instructor, and book worker based in Brooklyn.

Illustrations by Chloe Scheffe. Original photographs courtesy of Mike Meyers / Unsplash (stapler), Kelly Sikkema / Unspash (sticky note), Jess Bailey / Unsplash (paper clip), Crissy Jarvis / Unsplash (tape dispenser)