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Accomplished journalist Ed Park dives into fiction in his debut novel Personal Days, poking fun at office banalities while ignoring the rules of structure.
Your alarm rings its shrill bell. You reluctantly cross over from your dreamworld and stumble clumsily back into reality. As soon as you wake, in the midst of your grogginess and disorientation, you try to figure out what day it is. And then, the sad realization sinks in, and before you even get the chance to turn your alarm off, you're already afflicted with the case of the infamous "Monday Blues."
This is the plague that has swept across white-collared America. It involves a distasteful mix of emotions (apathy, dread, anxiety, melancholy, numbness), along with an overarching, heartfelt hatred of all things associated with the workplace. Yes, we all (myself included) have experienced it, and now this working man's phenomenon has inspired a cult film, two hit BBC/NBC comedies, a comic strip, and some bestselling books. We live in a world where T.G.I.F. isn't only a family sitcom lineup or a mediocre restaurant chain; it's a new mantra for "living for the weekend."
Ed Park, the founding editor of The Believer and former senior editor of the Village Voice, offers his comical insights of office life in his debut novel, Personal Days. The book follows the anxiety-ridden lives of powerless office workers, as their company starts to downsize under the totalitarian rule of new ownership. When I picked up the title at the local bookstore, it looked like an appetizingly light read with its playful cover and clever titles that reference computer jargon (i.e., "Can't Undo," "Replace All," and "Revert to Saved"). But cover art and puns aside, I had to raise a skeptical brow. I read with the forethought that its genre-sharing predecessors, such as Office Space and The Office might have exhausted any ounce of humor that could come from the drab, micro-world of cubicles. But surprisingly, Park still makes ample room to poke fun at our well-acquainted quirks and grievances from the daily grind. I have to admit some of the stuff sound like all-too-familiar jokes (e.g. the uncoordinated softball teams, missing staplers, sexual harassment seminars, the ludicrously incompetent bossman), but then again maybe these universal themes are simply unavoidable when it comes to the realm of office life.
But, on top of all that office satire that already exists, Park adds his own nuanced humor when he pokes fun at the excruciatingly mundane. He zeroes in on gnawing frustrations, like that pesky double-line space that won't go away after countless efforts of deleting, rewriting, copy & pasting, etc. Yes, that kind of frustration where you want to pound your head on your keyboard, as if it will solve anything. Park also points out that semi-neurotic dilemma that we each face when deciding which email sign-off to use, amongst the plethora of the generic "Sincerely's," the curt "Best's," and the excessive "Thank You's." These are just everyday incidents that we all have to bear, but Park puts these subtle, rather overlooked habits on blast for the reader to laugh (sometimes a bit embarrassingly) at oneself. But that's simply why this genre of "office lit" appeals to us common folks: it rings a bizarre and somewhat pathetic truth that applies to each and every one of us.
For Park, the truth beyond his stories might have extended beyond office crushes and computer breakdowns. In 2006, after working for over ten years as a Village Voice senior editor, Park, along with a bulk of the editorial staff, was laid off due to company downsizing under new owners -- their own set of "Californians," as referenced in the novel. Throughout this unstable period, Park became intrigued, watching the evolution of his workplace into "a fascinating, terrifying place" where people were "creating alliances as if they were in a reality show." The same paranoia is seen amongst the Personal Days crew, as they start formulating far-fetched theories about the firings, through ominously empty coke machines or post-it notes encrypted with mysterious codes. Park claims that he didn't base the book on his real-life experience at the Village Voice, though he did jokingly hint that "The Sprout," PD's erratic boss, could be the compilation of multiple personas, and his HR department really did get him and the other Asian guy mixed up. But apart from these "trivial" details, Park simply states that he sees "no purpose in taking things.... It's definitely easier to make things up."
Park's "fantasized" workplace isn't a one-note narrative. It goes down a windy path that starts with a lighthearted tone, evolving into a rather dulled stoicism, leading to downright delirium. Park starts off his tale in a first-person plural "we" voice -- the same one Joshua Ferris inhabits in his novel, And Then We Came to an End (Park wasn't deterred from using it, even after a clear warning from his editor). Later, the narrator still includes himself (or herself) as part of this office clan, yet keeps a considerable distance by staying unidentified. After introducing the characters and setting up the environment in the novel's first short snippets, the plot thickens and Park shifts into a more formal, outline grid to delineate the situation at hand.
Park wanted to make a "violent change of structure, creating an unsettling feeling for the reader that reflects the conditions of the workplace." Here, the voice that bore the comic warmth of camaderie is now broken and replaced by a sinister, colder third-person narrative. The most surprising and unconventional structure Park adopts is in the concluding section of the book, which he writes as a lengthy, confessional email that reads like a Berhardian monologue in its stream-of-consciousness ramblings. I had to go back and reread this section, which is void of punctuation, paragraph indents, and spell check, and Park admits this part was the hardest for him to write. As an editor, he had to be "technically immaculate" in a reverse fashion, dealing with "mechanical constraints without punctuation." The unraveling takes place in this "whodunnit" conclusion as Park seeps into the core of a character, in what was previously regarded as an ensemble cast.
As the story strolled along, I found myself unable to fully visualize each character because of the lack of physical descriptions -- with the exception of Grime, who I loosely pictured as one of the characters in the British sitcom Coupling, and Laars, who I visualized to be another "Jim" from The Office with his floppy hair and tall physique. But Park purposely strayed away from concrete physical characteristics in order to dissuade readers from getting fixated on external traits. He left out the characters' last names, keeping them free of ethnicities and any other prejudices that might come with a Jones, a Chang, a Martinez, or a Chandrasakur. However, he claims he wasn't trying to make a grand gesture of racial discourse, just playfully challenging readers' assumptions. Without the concrete details of hair/skin color, Park adopts more idiosyncratic descriptions such as Lizzie "sticking pencils in her hair," Pru's "serious eyebrows," or Laar's "ivy league vibe," providing images that allow readers to conjure up their own personalized Lizzie and Laars. Park doesn't specify the particular jobs of the characters, or even tell us the company's name. According to Park, after he found himself writing for 30+ pages, he felt no need to input these arbitrary facts. After all, who really wants to hear what you do at work? Not even your closest friends really care, so why on earth would anonymous readers (or more specifically, why should I) care?
What he does focus on -- the little vignettes of office life and his thickening plot -- are enough to keep one's brain rattled. Park's office saga blends the real with the surreal as he combines the everyday ritual of the workplace with a bit of uncanny mystery and a little pinch of (mostly one-sided) romance. But I guess that is why it all works in the long run. He makes the ordinary seem somewhat extraordinary as well as extra ordinary.
Ed Park, Personal Days, Random House Trade, 2008
Date Posted: 10/3/2008