Terrible jobs are a staple of literature. But it is a somewhat loaded term inviting images of scrubbing toilets, cleaning vomit, etc, when, really, all jobs are terrible, otherwise they would not have to pay us to do them.
I knew I wanted to write a novel about modern cultures of work. We’re working longer hours than ever and the gig economy workforce has almost tripled in the last five years. The Odyssey is set aboard a gargantuan cruise ship and explores this central contradiction: a requirement of devotion to your job which is then not reciprocated with basic security.
The employees on the ship work punishing short-term “rotations”, moving around different jobs (you might be a croupier for a while, then a photographer, then a customer services assistant, then a manicurist). Ingrid, the heroine, works in one of the many gift shops when she is accepted on to a mysterious employee mentorship scheme, “the programme”, run by the ship’s captain, Keith. Keith is a devoted if ill-informed follower of wabi-sabi – a Japanese aesthetic tradition that celebrates transience and decay. Ingrid must prove her devotion from her to her job from her and to Keith as she engages in a series of cult-like tests. Still, Ingrid does n’t think her job is terrible – she thinks it’s great! She’s searching for total obliteration of the self and she finds it.
A few years ago I came across a Grace Paley interview in which she stated she cannot write a character until she knows who their family are and where they get their money: a writing practice I fully endorse. And so all fictional characters generally need a terrible job. Here are my top 10…
1. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Set on the Microsoft campus in Washington state, Microserfs explores the feudal-like work culture at the company: the employees the novel follows are the serfs presided over by Bill Gates. It was one of the first novels to anticipate a dystopian culture in the tech industry that would soon become the norm, and one particular scene in which an employee slips “flat foods” (such as slices of processed cheese) beneath the office door of another employee, to ensure that they actually eat while working, has haunted me for 20 years.
2. The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt
Iris Vegan is a graduate student who works as a research assistant for an older, reclusive man named Mr Morning. She is tasked with cataloging a series of objects “belonging to a girl who died three years ago” (and, it transpires, was murdered). Ella’s job is to unbox each object (a white glove, a hand mirror), study it, smell it, attempt to understand it, then record herself describing and responding to the object in a neutral whisper. Hustvedt captures the stifling mundanity of repeating a task over and over again under perplexing, stultifying constraints.
3.Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
In New York City during the Great Depression, an unnamed male narrator responds to letters for his advice column, which he writes under the pen name “Miss Lonelyhearts”, in perhaps the ultimate book about a terrible job. Growing increasingly despondent and burdened by the miserable New Yorkers seeking his advice from him, Miss Lonelyhearts searches for ways to escape – through alcohol and religion to name a couple – as he barrels towards a full-blown existential crisis. A gorgeously written and pleasingly short and sharp satire.
4. Something Happened by Joseph Heller
The insanely named Bob Slocum prepares for a promotion, longs for a divorce and navigates his fear of closed doors in what Kurt Vonnegut described as “one of the unhappiest books ever written”. Sometimes criticized for being too long and meandering, which it probably is, it still has so many moments of stark absurdity, pitch black humor, and psychic unraveling, it is hard not to find anything but an exhilaratingly masochistic joy.
5. Pastoralia by George Saunders
Specifically the titular first story in the collection, about the employees of an open air theme park who play the cavemen in a diorama. They communicate with the management via fax. The unnamed narrator tells us of praise for displays of extreme commitment to their performances (eating raw meat, grooming insects from co-workers), and being punished for any concessions to actual humanity (talking in fully developed language). He eventually stops getting paid in a story so stifling (but funny!) you’ll want to step outside for a breath of fresh air once you’ve read it.
6. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
Written by two brothers, this 19th-century comic novel and class satire gives us the diary of George Pooter, a bumbling and generally easily pleased clerk at a vaguely referenced bank or accountancy firm. It recounts the daily tribulations and minor triumphs of his life and his mundane job. A successful joke, a moderately interesting anecdote or a bit of gossip provide many a reason to not just get out of bed and into the office, but a reason to live, in this peculiarly uplifting novel.
7. Work Won’t Love You Back Sarah Jaffe and Lost in Work by Amelia Horgan
Two absolutely essential non-fiction books which interrogate modern narratives surrounding work. Featuring an array of case studies from all walks of life, Work Won’t Love You Back examines the myth that work should be done for love not money, and questions the lack of validity or compensation afforded particular kinds of work (domestic labour, art ). Lost in Work queries a different myth about work: that we all have access to flexible, exciting and fast-paced employment, when what is really happening is a blurring of the lines between work and pleasure (“leisure treated as something we should make profitable ; each hobby a potential ‘side gig’.”).
8. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson
Malry is a self-described “simple man” who wants two things: sex, and to understand how money works. His job from him at a London bank affords him the chance to take a bookkeeping course, in which he learns double-entry bookkeeping (a two-sided method in which every entry requires a corresponding opposite entry to a different account). Eventually bored by the bank, he quits, then later has the idea to apply this method to his own life: for each personal misfortune (“four misshapen chocolates”) he is “credited” to act out compensatory (and increasingly violent) misdeeds against society.
9. There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura
The unnamed narrator of Tsumuru’s deadpan novel walks into an employment agency in search of work that requires no reading, no writing and minimal thinking. What she finds is a series of bizarre jobs that hover around the fringes of actual work: writing self-help copy for rice cracker packets; inexplicably surveilling a novelist suspected of being in possession of “contraband”. There is a hypnotizing uncanniness to this strange working world, and an odd satisfaction as the narrator pinballs from terrible job to terrible job.
10. All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills
Another unnamed narrator finds himself at a Lake District campsite before he plans to set out on a motorbike trip to India. He agrees to paint a gate for the campsite’s owner: seemingly a simple enough task, even if the payment for the job is vaguely skirted around. The painting of the gate leads to another task, then another, and there is always a reason he cannot continue on with his travels from him, perpetually something that keeps him on at the campsite. As his work by him becomes ever more sinister and absurd, he becomes resigned to the hopelessness of his situation – and we are resigned to never painting a gate.