Book Simple: The Perfect Short Story for Office Drones
a new blogumn by Amy Brown
I don’t really like short stories. After years of struggling through the New Yorker’s weekly fiction, I finally gathered up the courage to admit I couldn’t glean anything from it. Beyond the fact that the spare prose and in medias res storytelling make each week rather indistinguishable from the last, the settings (two off my shelf: memories of African life and Midwestern hipster poverty) leave an office worker reader, like this one, with a vague feeling of inadequacy. Real life is something that happens other places, the stories suggest. Your daily grind is not anything compelling.
Of course, office work often feels the same. When I worked at an east coast consulting firm, my hours spent communing with Excel and lunches spent discussing WSJ articles often blended together in my memory. My dreams at night involved sorting and merging datasets.
So it was a particular treat to follow up on Richard Russo’s recent recommendation on NPR and discover Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the best description of office life I’ve ever read. In our lawyer narrator’s Wall Street chambers, lit by windows offering “an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall,” unfolds a crisp, funny drama, a real New York story, as relevant today as when published in 1853.
Bartleby, a polite, quiet clerk, answers the lawyer’s advertisement for a legal copyist. In days before Xerox, when documents needed duplication, people did it by hand. Actually, one of my consultancy tasks was to copy and bind relevant documents for the perusal of my economist boss. It wasn’t nearly far enough away from Bartleby’s assignments.
At first grateful, and hopeful that Bartleby’s staid aspect will sober up his other two scriveners Turkey and Nippers, the narrator discovers that when Bartleby “would prefer not” to do some office chore, said chore would stay undone.
I’ve tried that, by the way, in real life. Despite my coworkers’ offers to split the workload more evenly, my boss insisted that when I was the analyst in charge of a project, I was on-call each weekend. After a series of on-call weekends, I turned my cell phone off. My boss, wanting a pdf document created, had to hit that “print pdf” button herself. Her subsequent rage that Monday would have not been inappropriate for a victim of a terrorist action.
The relations among the officemates were maybe my favorite part of the story. Bartleby’s arrival does not really disturb the symbiotic relationships of Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut, the errand boy, despite their repeated condemnation of Bartleby’s insubordination. Turkey is still drunk in the afternoons, while Nippers continues cranky in the mornings. Ginger Nut delivers snacks to everybody. But the concept of “preference” sneaks into the office vocabulary until the narrator (and the office) cannot bear it.
And isn’t that the truth of any office job? That if we thought too much about whether that job is how we want to spend our lives, we’d all go quietly, politely mad?