March 1, 2024

Off the Shelf: Workplace Fiction That’s True to Life

Invariably, what we get instead is the corporate thriller. You know, young Ned lands a job in the mailroom at Faceless Colossus Inc., climbs the ladder to middle management, then finds his boss in a pool of blood and balance sheets in the conference room, then uncovers a giant global conspiracy to subvert humanity in the boardroom, then goes on the run, where he is pursued by stern men in Joseph Abboud suits as he and the inevitable girlfriend scramble to save their lives, the world and, I don’t know, their 401(k)s. The villain is always the C.E.O.

The paucity of thoughtful business fiction, I surmise, has to do with the novelist’s preference for matters of life and death, or at least love. Writers yearn to put their characters in jeopardy, whether actual or emotional, and at first glance the main thing at stake in most corporate dramas, real or otherwise, is money. If the crucial issue is whether Faceless Colossus makes its earnings estimate for the quarter, or whether young Ned gets that bonus, well, not many novelists want to go there.

Which is kind of a shame. Television, after all, has set all kinds of excellent tales in the business world. “Mad Men” jumps to mind; it actually finds drama in the gritty realities of account management. “L.A. Law.” Heck, even “Ally McBeal” had its moments.

These shows also illuminate the lives that people lead in the workplace — another part of experience that is not especially well represented in fiction. Sloan Wilson (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” published in 1955), Joshua Ferris (“Then We Came to the End,” from 2007) and Mr. Ford are among the few who have found fictional inspiration inside the office.

Mr. Ford attempts to add to the meager store of workplace fiction with a new paperback collection of short stories he has edited, called “Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work” (Harper Perennial). By and large, these pieces don’t pierce the dark heart of Corporate America, or limn its existential dilemmas. Instead, most are character studies set in all manner of work environments, be they barrios, furniture warehouses or typewriter repair shops.

It’s hard to generalize about 32 stories by 32 authors, including some written by such luminaries as Alice Munro, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever and Joyce Carol Oates. A few are vignettes that deal only glancingly with work at all. Mr. Ford’s piece, for instance, gives us a young couple driving to his boss’s home when, on a darkened country road, the wife suddenly volunteers that she has had an affair with the boss. There is some awkward silence, a fast punch to her nose, then a dead raccoon and a quick denouement. Mr. Ford’s prose is evocative, but this is what usually passes for a story when novelists write about “work” — a sharp vignette set against a workplace backdrop, but not really about the work. Which is fine. Nice story.

Maybe I should read more modern fiction, but a few of these tales left me scratching my head. One called “Zapatos,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, is about a vaguely Chilean shoe importer who sends his son off to a distant warehouse to buy shoes that fit only a left foot. Maybe you had to be there. Or the first one, by Max Apple, about a Houston woman attempting to open a small business; it meanders through a trip to a loan officer and a come-on from a supplier and then ends with the promise of impending marital sex. (Don’t look at me; I didn’t understand it either.) The Russell Banks offering tells the story of three kids from a distant barrio who start their own security business and get rich; as nicely as Banks writes, I’m still not sure what the point of the thing was.

For every tale that’s a little, um, odd, there are stories here that do take us into work, and into lives, that feel very real. One of my favorite stories from the collection, “Drummond and Son,” by Charles D’Ambrosio, is a gentle snapshot of a lone father trying to raise his troubled son in the father’s Seattle typewriter repair shop. It gets the feel of a small business just right, the usual customers, the minutiae of the work, the juggling of family and outside pressures that press into the day.

Another perceptive piece is “Edison, New Jersey,” by Junot Díaz, which chronicles a few days in the life of a Dominican delivery man as he and his partner cart pool tables around the New Jersey suburbs. The man steals a little — O.K., a lot — hits on the help, and leaves unpleasant bathroom surprises for customers he dislikes. There is nothing remarkable about the story or the protagonist, but a reader is left with a keen sense of a frustrating blue-collar job, the kind of work, done by the kind of person, that we find too easy to ignore.

WALKING up and down airplane aisles, I usually notice that most businesspeople are reading work materials, nonfiction or some kind of self-help book. Rarely do I spy anyone reading business-themed fiction. But if you want to give it a try, or just sample snippets from some good fiction writers, this book is worth a read. I learned a few things, smiled a time or two and made myself a promise to leave very, very good tips for the next delivery man who comes to our house.  

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