Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Personal Days by Ed Park

I'm not sure if there have actually been a small burst of satirical workplace novels recently, or if I've just started noting them, but Personal Days definitely falls into that burgeoning category. It's somewhat more successful than Max Barry's Company, but not as impressive as Joshua Ferris's amazing Then We Came to the End, and in general relies on stylistic tricks and linguistic pyrotechnics rather than deep characterization or much plot.

Personal Days, like Gaul, is divided into three sections. The first, "Can't Undo," is very reminiscent of Then We Came to the End -- it's written in second-person plural and divided into lots and lots of small sections under headers (like a business book, presumably). The second part, "Replace All," is ostensibly organized as an outline (sections are noted like this -- II (A) i (a) -- and cascade under each other before returning back up to the higher level), but is written more conventionally, as a third-person plural story viewing all of the characters from the outside. And then the end of the novel, "Revert to Saved," is one long letter, from one character to another, in an attempt to wrench Personal Days into being a tour de force.

Personal Days is good but not great, crumbling under the weight of flaws that might have become strengths with some more thought and work. The various characters -- Pru, Laars, Jack II, Lizzie, Jonah, Jenny, Crease, and Jill -- work for a company that does unspecified work, somewhere in New York. That non-specificity could have been ominous -- if it was focused on a single character. Since we don't have a single protagonist, we realize that it's just that Park isn't telling us what they do, since surely someone in this office knows what work they do.

The characters have some life, but aren't crisply delineated -- they're like people half-remembered, the colleagues you had at that one job five years ago, the people who were your best friends for nine months and whom you said you'd never forget. The ones you haven't seen since you left that job.

The plot is easy to describe: this company is slowly laying people off. Three now, four six months ago, another two at the end of the year. None of that is announced ahead of time, of course: it just happens when it happens, suddenly and surprisingly. Things are tightening, duties are shifting, and everyone is in fear of losing their jobs. Add to that a slightly confusing structure -- including people who may be bosses or may not -- and a distant, uncommunicative ownership, and you have a recipe for uneasiness. Of course, in real offices like that -- and I lived through one for several years -- the employees are networking frantically, trying to get out and into another, more stable job somewhere else. At his company, though, no one leaves except by being fired.

But, really, I'm not being fair to Personal Days. It's an inventive, entertaining novel of the American workplace, plugged into the anxieties and fears of today. It's not Then We Came to the End, no -- but no other novel is. Personal Days is a good novel for this year, funny when it needs to be and thoughtful almost as often as it wants to be. It's quite an achievement for a first novel, and I'll be waiting to see what Ed Park does next -- he's a talent to keep an eye on.

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