Ed Park • Random House • Available now
It’s unclear what business the disillusioned office workers who populate Ed Park’s debut novel are in. Their jobs aren’t at any sort of alternative-weekly, like the one from which the author was unceremoniously fired a few years ago; there’s not the requisite frenzy. Personal Days is no thinly veiled tell-all, but Park has exacted revenge on his former employer in at least one way: the twin Starbucks and “hippie coffee van” that surround the fictional office are familiar signposts of the Village Voice’s stomping ground.
Like Joshua Ferris’s excellent Then We Came to the End, Park’s debut novel deftly turns trivial cubicle fixations into dark comedy. Both books take place at companies in the throes of mass lay-offs and use first person plural narration to suggest office groupthink (“We look like we’ve been squeezed out of a tube and haven’t quite solidified”). Park’s characters are younger and more cynical than Ferris’s, almost certainly because they work in New York. Most of what we know about them has to do with their idiosyncrasies.
As the mysterious company unravels, these colleagues become increasingly paranoid, intent on uncovering what they believe are surely sinister plots to force them out of their jobs (jobs they hate but cling to anyway — a common condition that is but one of Park’s many keen and caustic observations). The sincere camaraderie among them is premised entirely on their shared work environment: once someone is fired, they basically cease to exist. The office is its own continent, with distinct regions, subcultures and rituals.
Park is a founder and editor of The Believer, which makes his book’s stylistic quirkiness somewhat predictable. While relating the middle section as an elaborate outline and the concluding one as a long, rambling email might parallel the nonsensical organizational systems of office culture, it still comes across as decoration for a story Park wasn’t sure could stand on its own.
But it can. Personal Days succeeds on Park’s sharp prose and his sensitivity to the insanities of entirely average people. By encouraging our uncomfortable laughter, he does justice to the absurdity of the office.