Ed Park's Personal Days
The Stop Smiling Review
Monday, May 12, 2008
By Ed Park
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor
Every so often, in the repetitive conversations that take place between cubicle walls, the proposition is floated: We shouldn’t demand fulfillment from our jobs — we should look for it elsewhere. But given what our jobs demand from us, do we often have that choice? Or, as the narrator of Ed Park’s Personal Days asks, “How is it that she has a whole life outside the office? Everyone must, but most days this seems like too much to ask.”
In much fiction, a character’s job is a mere attribute, subordinate to other interests and relationships, or else it is a satirical foil to worthier aspirations. Alternatively, genres like the legal thriller revolve entirely around the minutiae of a particular profession, which becomes the subject, overshadowing the characters. The perfectly titled Personal Days renders a world in which the workplace shapes the texture of each employee’s daily life (or lack thereof), meticulously capturing the degree to which the corporate has subsumed the intimate. The novel revolves around a tribe of mid-level employees at a small, nameless New York City company recently acquired by a conglomerate — known to them merely as “the Californians” — and undergoing drawn-out and illogical layoffs. The generic discourse of IT and management consultancy dominates, with the actual nature of the business remaining unspecified. But the members of the core group banter through the days with the unmistakable hyper-literacy of “content” producers. Equipped with nicknames of precise derivation (“Crease,” “Grime,” “Jack II”), they invent the language they need to cope with the incomprehensible logic of the takeover: Promotions that come with more drawbacks than benefits are labeled deprotions; a creaky cosmology akin to the epicycles of Ptolemy’s astronomy is invented to explain the shadowy workings of the invisible overlord. The narrator — never “I,” just “we” — quietly archives the local landscape and vernacular: A computer noise sounds like “a coin dropped into a box of xylophone parts”; a diagram of one character’s sentences “would look like a subway map mating with the remains of a fish dinner.”
It only takes a little inside knowledge to see the touches inspired (if that’s the right word) by the actual acquisition of a small New York City company by a brainless conglomerate — the Village Voice, Park’s erstwhile employer, being the former, New Times Media (now Village Voice Media) the latter. But the characters exist a world apart from the familiar narratives of weary slackers or anxious strivers one might expect to find in a New York-media novel. Jules, who has recently been fired, opens a “chalet-themed” restaurant and bar with a one-word name that no one can remember (“Mannequin? Gallivant?”). But despite being ripped from food-blog headlines, this jab doesn’t stand in for any familiar narrative about New York or attendant critique, partly because the characters are so oblivious to the world outside the office, which they indeed refer to as “the outside world.” Pru is the envy of the group because she’s always being invited to parties “in strange parts of Brooklyn,” but for all her social connectedness, she has no idea where Brooklyn really is, much less that her more introverted coworkers live there.
Although the book is set squarely in the present Internet era, it evokes something like the experience of working at a weekly magazine before the Internet was available in the office. As if Gawker and Facebook don’t exist, the workers depend on each other to kill time, to and create a world of shared references that are oriented not to public displays of ambition, but to private strategies of survival. That survival is endangered when “The Firings” set in, and what seemed to be a genial office anthropology becomes a mystery story: What is being done to the employees’ daytime redoubt, and who is doing it? (The question of why is too much to ask.) Perhaps the mystery exists only because these are the kind of people who are inured to the irrational; faced with an unknown quantity, they are inclined to give it a joke name, surreptitiously monitor its activities, and circulate fretful emails questioning its origins, rather than investigate it with any seriousness. Additionally, they engage in constant but careless — at least initially — surveillance of the minutiae of one another’s behavior: They take note of anomalies, fail to interpret them and soon forget them. The narrator recalls that “the Sprout,” their nominal boss, “went to a community college, transferred to Hamilton, then to Cornell. Or possibly he’s from Hamilton, Ontario? Jules used to think the school was Colgate, but that was because of the teeth.” It can get difficult to remember who is Jules and who is Jonah, who is Jenny and who is Lizzie — for the characters themselves, as well as the reader. The general sense of confusion is amplified by verbal misunderstandings, which spread like a virus jumping from computers to humans and back, aided by the errors of a voice-recognition program called Glottis. (Park has, as the reviewers like to say, a “pitch-perfect ear” — for his own imagination; he’s the kind of writer who, when inventing the name of a fictional pharmaceutical, lands on Goneril.)
Much like a 21st-century version of a Wilkie Collins “sensation novel,” the characters populating Personal Days aren’t equipped to grasp the basic nature of the mystery — is it a ghost, or an incredibly sophisticated trick? It takes an email denouement to connect the various plot points, a climactic missive from the one person who holds the key to the acronyms, code names and Glottis “misrecognitions.” Though the contents of the email provide some closure, it is the medium of email itself, with its potential for an immediate interiority, that cuts through all the detached note-taking and casual one-liners, and redeems the seemingly dead time and space of occupational alienation throughout Personal Days, unleashing the potential energy accumulated alongside vacation days, a 401(k) — and, with luck, a severance package.