Top 10 books about terrible jobs | Fiction

TTerrible jobs are a staple of literature. But it’s a fairly loaded term calling pictures of cleaning toilets, cleaning up vomit and so on, when all the jobs are, really, terrible, otherwise they wouldn’t have to pay us to do them.

I knew I wanted to write a novel about modern work cultures. We are working longer hours than ever before and the workforce in the gig economy has nearly tripled in the past five years. Odyssey is set aboard a giant cruise ship and explores this central contradiction: the requirement to dedicate to your job that is not reciprocated with basic security.

Staff on board work punishing short-term “rotation”, hopping on various jobs (you might be a piercing worker for a while, then a photographer, then a customer service assistant, then a manicurist). The heroine Ingrid works in one of the many gift shops when she is accepted into the mysterious employee mentorship program, “The Program”, which is run by the ship’s captain Keith. Keith is a loyal follower of wabi-sabi if they ever get to know—a Japanese aesthetic tradition that celebrates passing and decadence. Ingrid must prove her devotion to her job and to Keith as she participates in a series of cult-like tests. However, Ingrid doesn’t think her job is bad – she thinks it’s cool! She searches for and finds complete self-effacement.

A few years ago, I came across an interview with Grace Paley in which she stated that she can’t write a character until she knows who her family is and where they get their money: the practice of writing I fully support. So all fictional characters in general need terrible work. Here are the top 10…

1. Microserves for Douglas Copeland
Set on the Microsoft campus in Washington state, Microservs explores the company’s feudal-like work culture: the employees the novel follows are the serfs headed by Bill Gates. It was one of the first novels that projected a miserable culture in the tech industry that would soon become the norm, and one particular scene in which an employee slips “flat foods” (like slices of processed cheese) under the office door of another employee, to make sure they’re actually eating while at work, kept haunting me. for 20 years.

2. The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt
Iris Vegan is a graduate student who works as a research assistant for a reclusive older man named Mr. Morning. She is tasked with cataloging a series of objects “belonging to a girl who died three years ago” (and it turns out she was murdered). Eris’ task is to open the box of the object (white glove, hand mirror), study it, smell it, try to understand it, and then record herself describing the object and responding to it in a neutral whisper voice. Hustvedt captures the stifling blood money of repeating a task over and over again under baffling and opaque constraints.

Montgomery Clift in 1958 adapted from Miss Lonelyhearts (1958).
Montgomery Clift in 1958 adapted from Miss Lonelyhearts (1958). Photo: IMDB

3. Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West
In New York City during the Great Depression, an unnamed male narrator replies to messages regarding his advice column, which he writes under the pseudonym “Miss Lonelyhearts,” possibly in the last book about a terrible job. Desperate and burdened by the miserable New Yorkers who seek his advice, Miss Lonelyhearts searches for ways to escape – through alcohol and debt to name a couple – as he heads toward a full-blown existential crisis. Spelling is exquisitely written, short and sharp.

4. Something Happened by Joseph Heller
Preparing for a promotion, the insanely named Bob Slocum longs for divorce and battles his fear of closed doors in what Kurt Vonnegut called “one of the most miserable books ever.” He’s sometimes criticized for being tall and curvy, and he probably still has so many blatantly silly moments, dark humor, and psychological disintegration that it’s hard to find anything other than a delightful masochistic hilarity.

5. The Pastorals of George Saunders
Specifically, the first story in the set, about outdoor amusement park employees playing cavemen in a diorama. They communicate with the administration via fax. The unnamed narrator tells us about praising shows of extreme commitment to their performance (eating raw meat, grooming insects from their co-workers), and punishing them for any concessions to actual humanity (speaking in fully developed language). Finally stop getting paid for a suffocating (but funny!) story you’ll want to go outside for some fresh air as soon as you read it.

1946 illustration of a scene from Nobody's Diary.
Oddly Raised… 1946 Illustration for a Scene from Nobody’s Diary. Illustration: Culture Club/Getty Images

6. Nobody’s Memoirs by George Whedon Grossmith
This 19th-century comedy novel and class satire, written by two brothers, gives us the memoirs of George Potter, a stuttering and generally pleased writer at a bank or accounting firm with ambiguous references. He narrates the daily tribulations and minor victories in his life and earthly work. A successful joke, a rather interesting anecdote or a bit of gossip provides plenty of reasons not just to get out of bed and into the office, but a reason to live, in this one-of-a-kind novel.

7. Work will never love you again Sarah Jaffe lost at work Amelia Horgan
Two very basic non-fiction books question the modern narratives surrounding the work. Featuring a collection of case studies from all walks of life, Work I’ll Never Love You Again examines the myth that work should be done for love not money, and questions the invalidity or compensation given to certain types of work (domestic labour, art). The Lost in Business inquires a different myth about work: that we all have access to flexible, exciting, and fast-paced work, when what really happens is blurring the lines between work and pleasure (“leisure is treated as something we must make profitable” Every hobby is a potential “side gig.”).

8. Kristi Mallery Double Entry from PS Johnson
Mallery is a self-described “simple guy” who wants two things: sex, and an understanding of how money works. His job in a London bank gives him the opportunity to take a course in bookkeeping, where he learns double-entry bookkeeping (a two-sided method in which each entry requires an opposite entry for a different account). Eventually, he gets bored of the bank, quits, and later thinks about applying this method to his own life: for every personal misfortune (“four distorted chocolate bars”) he is “credited” with compensatory actions (increasingly violent). against society.

9. There is no such thing as an easy task from Kikuko Tsumura
The unnamed narrator of Tsumuro’s dead-end novel walks to an employment agency in search of work that requires no reading, writing, or minimal thought. What I found was a series of odd jobs hovering around the margins of actual work: writing self-help copy for rice cracker packages; Inexplicably watching a novelist suspected of possessing “contraband”. There is a hypnotic weirdness to this bizarre world of action, and eerie satisfaction as the narrator’s balls go from horrible action to horrible action.

10. All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills
Another unnamed narrator finds himself at a campground in the Lake District before planning a motorbike trip to India. He agrees to draw a gate for the camp owner: a seemingly simple enough task, even if the payment for the job is vaguely circumvented. The gate board leads to another mission, then another mission, and there’s always a reason he can’t carry on with his travels, something that always keeps him at the camp site. As his work becomes ever more wretched and absurd, he becomes resigned to his despair—and we are resigned to never drawing the gate.

The Odyssey by Lara Williams is published by Penguin. For Guardian and Observer assistance, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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