"Random poignancy circa 2:30," reads one of the subheds in Ed Park's new office life novel, "Personal Days." "Is Excel crashing everyone's computer?" Reprising the theme throughout the book, it's the fixtures of work life, particularly the koanlike dialogue boxes that pop up on office computer screens, that provide such incidental profundity and wisdom. "I don't understand," computers tell their operators, or halt employees in their tracks with the poetic-sounding verdict "Invalid Command." Or best of all, to the despairing amusement of the young set of office workers huddling aboard a slowly sinking company ship, is the closing pop-up question of each work week, when they shut off their computers to embark on "modest hopes" for the weekend: "Are you sure you want to quit?"
The book is ornately divided into three sections, with three vantage points, their titles taken from what are familiar computer prompts and commands to modern office workers: "Can't Undo," "Replace All," "Revert to Saved." In "Can't Undo" the voice is that of the communal "we" of the young pool of overqualified, undermotivated office workers—Pru, Lizzie, Jonah, Laars, "Crease"—who are floating through their mid-20s in a low-grade depression regarding their prospects. But their dejection is made bearable by their catalog of coping methods: Brentian psychologists versus cut-rate "life coaches"; workday weeping sessions in the bathroom or the adoption of exotic worry objects, such as the "Mexican distress frog" Jonah buys to soothe his ragged nerves. All the members of the group are survivors of a severe downsizing—"the Firings," they call it, always capitalized—in their Manhattan company, now "the easternmost arm of an Omaha-based Octopus." The Firings were a year earlier, but increasingly the survivors are menaced by the prospect of new potential buyers, "The Californians," and a fresh wave of employment horror that may follow the takeover.
Trapped between one set of pink slips and anticipation of a second round in the middle future, they drink together ("one or two nights a week, sometimes three … Three is too much"), keeping tabs of who buys. They keep watch of the wardrobe of their frighteningly alluring supervisor, and of the eccentricities of their boss, "The Sprout," a nervous bundle of glad-handing neurosis and management clichés who laughs and cries with the same broken squawk, "Hoo hoo!" The descriptions of The Sprout can't help recalling "The Office"'s Steve Carell, though that's likely to be the bane of any current book of office literature with a comically uncouth boss. With often pitch-perfect delivery, Park chronicles the grind of daily office tedium, which wears the clique down into professional cynics and observers, from the tricky politics of e-mailing a supervisor (a "psychotic" peppiness "barely stifling a howl of fear") to the shelved individual passion projects none of them wants to discuss.
The group works across from the construction site of the "Infinity building," a mobius strip-shaped structure rising beside their own company home in a building frequently featured in commercials for an employment company called "Jobmilla." The commercials envision life behind the foreboding facade of their building as a desolate factory assembly line, processing a conveyer belt of sad-sack employees into a crop of well-adjusted, productive workers. The company's cryptic slogan, "What goes around comes around," is suspected of being deliberately nonsensical, tapping into viewers' vague notions of "office karma," but nonetheless it feeds into the mystical approach the group adopts toward its circumstances, a blend of fatalism and superstition that leaves them painfully stagnated and helpless in the face of their futures. They all secretly wonder whether it's too late for another path—law school, say—and come quickly to the answer, "It is." They tell themselves they can't be the next on the chopping block because they are exploited as is, and they wait together. "It's possible we can't stand each other," muses the groupthink narrator, "but at this point we're helpless in the company of outsiders."
If these descriptions sound precious, at times they skate close to it, reminiscent of the hyperliterate precociousness that typifies much recent literature and cinema. But Park deftly keeps his characters just this side of hipster cuteness. There are ironic softball leagues and an office full of college grads in Almond Joy T-shirts, but on the whole the writing has more heart and smarts than such atmospheric quirkiness. Park has a sound sense both of his characters' kindness and banality, and as the novel progresses he succeeds in nailing the note of false ennui the young group at first gives off, exposing not just their dull, sad anxieties but the sweet affection they do develop for each other, with sharp and lovely language.
In the second section, "Replace All," the narrative voice shifts abruptly to third person, laid out entirely in outline form, starting with "II (A) Asylum." And it is an asylum, and a transparent attempt to order it, that takes place as the office starts to unravel under the top-down pressure from "The Californians," as well as from an undercover interloper who sows terror in both management and the disaffected young staff, all of whom startle and freeze in the face of impending impact. An ax hangs over them—and literally appears in a hallway one day, as though summoned by their collective fear. In this harsh new environment—"Replace all"—their irony melts away, and the detached voice of the outside observer judges them, and their young affectations, coldly: "Any minor eccentricity could be deemed wild or out of control. Such language convinced them they were more interesting than they suspected they really were. It was crucial that they never contemplated the possibility of their inherent, overwhelming dullness."
The outline, divided down to fourth and fifth subpoints like an infinite enumeration of interoffice terror, struggles to put order to a nervous stampede. Amid this tension the characters retreat and regress, and grow sets of bodily ailments to rival those of the Underground Man: spasmodic eye flutters, constant ringing in the ears, strange afflictions of speechlessness and an outbreak of contagious psychosomatic back pain. On the advice of Pru, the office MFA, they work on their "layoff narratives": personalized chronologies of job loss, so they can better process termination when it comes, even while realizing, "Once you start constructing the layoff narrative, it's only a matter of time. It starts to feel like a fait accompli."
They grow ever more superstitious, assigning magical power to the time stamps on their e-mails—9:11 being the unluckiest time of day to receive a message from a boss—and imagining that their computers are watching them, conspiring to keep them from pursuing other job opportunities. The computers are beyond anthropomorphized, but so personally connected to them that the system crashes in tandem with the employees at the flirtations of the office vamp.
"Our machines know more than we do," Pru offers as a moral (culled from her current sci-fi reading), identifying the strangely "instinctive" failings of their office computers. They search for clues everywhere: in a mysterious notebook, "The Jilliad," found after the guillotine-swift firing of its author, Jill, while they were out to lunch one day. The Jilliad is a spiral-bound compilation of dreadful, contradictory passages of business wisdom: career self-help guides and CEO memoirs. They seize on it as in turns pathetic, prophetic and "found" art: a bitter judgment on the clichés of corporate doublethink. Jonah, if not the group's moral center at least its center of moral outrage, balking at the increasing indignities the company foists on them—in a particularly cruel instance, imposing a time-stamp card system on the employees that collects no actual information but exists solely to demoralize—finds another guiding philosophy. After returning from a vacation in Mexico he tells his colleagues about a mythological Mexican chieftain "who ruled by confusion," constant division of the ranks and bewildering opposing commands: sending troops north, then south, on rumors of various invading armies. Though you wouldn't guess it, Jonah dryly informs the group, this system of rule apparently worked for some centuries.
Armed with this insight into "leadership," arguably as valid a battle plan as the collective wisdom of The Sprout's office-warrior bookshelf, Jonah is the only member of the group who manages to break out of the office's fatalistic sense of karmic predestination—what goes around is coming around, and it's likely got a blade—breaking from the pack in what is to him at first a revolting self-realization. Upon finding The Jilliad, Jonah realizes he has his own morsels of business wisdom to enter into what he comes to call "the Notebook of Power." He discovers, to his horror and eventual acceptance, that he has not only a "management style" but also a surprising capacity for ambition and ruthless self-advancement. He makes a particularly unlikely mercenary—he is earlier described as a should-be union organizer or philosophy professor, bringing unusable but lovely bits of wisdom to company sexual harassment seminars ("Don't we need Eros in order for commerce to happen?"). But it's Jonah who unravels the mystery of who in fact is doing the company in, from within, while all others, lookers, overlords and victims alike, are paralyzed in the face of a golemlike figure: corporate culture and management clichés made flesh in the body of their tormentor.
Breaking through this, Jonah narrates the final section, "Revert to Saved," in a style so different that Park gives it its own font: a soulful love letter and apologia that distills the gracefulness of Park's prose throughout the book to a single elegant voice, the individual that was before entering the assembly line of the Jobmilla nightmare. But while other literary victors in the office world offer a dark moral—taking command of the corporate dream leads to losing one's soul—Jonah emerges as strangely whole and human for his office coup. Rather than passively participating in his obsolescence, he's able to recognize the haphazard standards determining the futures of scores of employees, to recognize the system as corrupt and the bureaucratese cowing his peers as absurd, and still to make a separate peace. It may be a murky moral for recession times, but better than that, it's a lyrical and often piercing look at daily life made strange and beautiful by faithful transcription.