Jterrible jobs are a staple of literature. But it’s a somewhat loaded term inviting images of scrubbing toilets, cleaning vomit, etc., when, really, all the jobs are terrible, otherwise they wouldn’t have to pay us to do them.
I knew I wanted to write a novel about modern work cultures. We’re working longer than ever, and the gig economy workforce has nearly tripled in the past five years. The Odyssey takes place aboard a gargantuan cruise ship and explores this central contradiction: a requirement of dedication to one’s work which is then not reciprocated with basic security.
The ship’s employees work by punishing short-term “rotations”, moving between different jobs (you can be a croupier for a while, then a photographer, then a customer service assistant, then a manicurist). Ingrid, the heroine, is working in one of the many gift shops when she is accepted into a mysterious employee mentoring program, “the program”, run by the ship’s captain, Keith. Keith is a dedicated but misinformed follower of wabi-sabi – a Japanese aesthetic tradition that celebrates the ephemeral and decadence. Ingrid must prove her dedication to her job and to Keith as she engages in a series of cult-like tests. Still, Ingrid doesn’t think her work is terrible – she thinks it’s awesome! She seeks total self-effacement and she finds it.
A few years ago I came across an interview with Grace Paley in which she said she couldn’t write a character until she knew who their family was and where they got their money: a practice of writing that I fully endorse. And so all fictional characters generally need terrible work. Here are my top 10…
1. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Set on the Microsoft campus in Washington state, Microserfs explores the company’s feudal work culture: the employees the novel follows are the serfs presided over by Bill Gates. It was one of the first novels to anticipate a dystopian culture in the tech industry that would soon become the norm, and a particular scene in which an employee slips “flat food” (like slices of melted cheese) under the door. from another employee’s desk, to make sure he eats well while working, has haunted me for 20 years.
2. Blindfolded by Siri Hustvedt
Iris Vegan is a graduate student who works as a research assistant for an older, reclusive man named Mr. Morning. She’s tasked with cataloging a series of items “belonging to a girl who died three years ago” (and, it turns out, was murdered). Iris’ job is to unpack each object (a white glove, a hand mirror), study it, smell it, try to understand it, and then record herself describing and responding to the object in a neutral whisper. Hustvedt captures the stifling banality of repeating a task over and over again under baffling and mind-numbing constraints.
3.Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
In New York during the Great Depression, an anonymous male narrator responds to letters from his advice column, which he writes under the pen name “Miss Lonelyhearts”, in perhaps the ultimate book about terrible work. Increasingly discouraged and overwhelmed by the miserable New Yorkers who seek her advice, Miss Lonelyhearts seeks ways to escape – through alcohol and religion to name a few – as he races towards a full-fledged existential crisis. A beautifully written and pleasantly short and crisp satire.
4. Something Happened by Joseph Heller
The insanely named Bob Slocum prepares for a promotion, yearns for a divorce, and navigates his fear of closed doors in what Kurt Vonnegut has described as “one of the most unhappy books ever written.” Sometimes criticized for being too long and winding, which it probably is, it still contains so many moments of utter absurdity, dark humor and psychic unraveling, it’s hard not to find anything but joy in it. exhilarating masochist.
5. Pastoral by George Saunders
Specifically, the first titular story in the collection, about employees at an outdoor theme park who play cavemen in a diorama. They communicate with management by fax. The anonymous narrator praises us for displays of extreme commitment to their performance (eating raw meat, caring for fellow bugs) and being punished for any concessions to real humanity (speaking in fully developed language) . It eventually ceases to pay off in a story so sultry (but funny!) you’ll want to step out for a breath of fresh air once you’ve read it.
6. Diary of a Person by George and Weedon Grossmith
Written by two brothers, this 19th century comic novel and class satire gives us the diary of George Pooter, a clumsy and usually easily satisfied clerk at a vaguely referenced bank or accounting firm. He recounts the daily tribulations and small triumphs of his life and his mundane work. A successful joke, a moderately interesting anecdote or a bit of gossip provide plenty of reasons not just to get out of bed and go to the office, but a reason to live, in this particularly uplifting novel.
7. Work won’t love you back. Sarah Jaffe and lost at work by Amelie Horgan
Two absolutely essential non-fiction books that interrogate modern narratives surrounding work. Featuring an array of case studies from all walks of life, Work Won’t Love You Back examines the myth that work should be done for love, not money, and questions the lack of validity or compensation granted to certain types of work (domestic work, art). Lost in Work interrogates a different myth about work: that we all have access to flexible, exciting and fast-paced employment, when what is really happening is a blurring of the lines between work and pleasure (“leisure treated as something we should make a profit; every hobby is a potential ‘side gig’).
8. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson
Malry is a self-proclaimed “simple man” who wants two things: sex and understanding how money works. His job at a London bank offers him the opportunity to take an accounting course, in which he learns double-entry bookkeeping (a two-sided method in which each entry requires a corresponding opposite entry to a different account). Eventually bored by the bank, he quits, then later has the idea of applying this method to his own life: for each personal misfortune (“four misshapen chocolates”) he is “credited” with performing compensatory misdeeds (and increasingly violent) against society.
9. There’s No such thing as easy work by Kikuko Tsumura
The anonymous narrator of Tsumuru’s deadpan novel enters an employment agency looking for a job that requires no reading, writing, or thinking. What she finds is a series of bizarre jobs that hover on the fringes of actual work: writing self-help copy for packets of rice crackers; inexplicably monitoring a novelist suspected of being in possession of “contraband”. There is a mesmerizing weirdness to this strange world of work, and an uncanny satisfaction as the narrator goes from terrible job to terrible job.
10. Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills
Another anonymous narrator ends up at a Lake District campsite before planning a motorcycle trip to India. He agrees to paint a door for the owner of the campsite: a seemingly simple enough task, even if the payment for the work is vaguely circumvented. Painting the gate leads to another task, then another, and there’s always a reason he can’t continue his travels, which keeps him perpetually at the campsite. As his work grows increasingly grim and absurd, he resigns himself to the hopelessness of his situation – and we resign ourselves to never painting a door.