The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Helen Phillips
I don’t think I’ve ever read about a job more harrowing than the one in Helen Phillips’ frightfully enchanting new novel: the building is silent, the rules are strict, the task is titchy, mindless, and somehow sinister, the boss is a figure known to our narrator only as The Person with Bad Breath, and the walls, the walls: “pinkish, ill-colored” walls, covered with “scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands.” A bureaucrat’s fable to read under your desk on bad days, a reminder that things could be much, much weirder and much, much worse.
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
Unfinished as it is, my interpretation of The Pale King is that it is an exercise in focused boredom. Parts of it are brilliant, of course, but parts of it seem like a thought experiment: you’re meant to be so bored that your eyes well up a little bit and the words blur. That’s the point. Fitting, then, that it’s centered around a group of people with deeply dull lives, working for the IRS in Peoria in the ’80s. Probably it will make any form you’re filling out seem just a little bit less dull in comparison.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
So, you’re probably not a butler. But you might still be able to relate to this gorgeous, understated tragedy in which a man subordinates his own deepest desires and even his selfhood to his ideas of propriety and loyalty to his employer. At least you can go home at the end of the day, right?
Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville
Take courage from the worker’s patron saint: Bartleby, who would prefer not to. But after you’ve taken that courage, note his fate, and maybe pick your battles a little better than he did.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
If you’ve ever felt like a semi-awakened clone working in a near-future fast food restaurant with a hundred other people who look just like you before you’re put down for the night, well… you might find something to relate to here. Hey, at least you (probably) won’t get murdered and recycled after you’ve been at the company too long!
Pastoralia, George Saunders
Saunders had himself held quite a number of strange and perhaps terrible jobs before he became a household name, so it’s no surprise that the jobs he dreams up in his short stories are gloriously horrible. Here’s just one example: the title story of this collection, which features two people paid to act like cavemen in an exhibit/zoo of some kind — one of whom is much more committed to maintaining the caveman illusion than the other. Maybe you’re dreaming of sending one of your coworkers there now.
Germinal, Émile Zola
You could be coal mining.
Post Office, Charles Bukowski
This novel follows Bukowski surrogate Henry Chinaski as he tries to get as much sex, booze, and racetrack betting into his wretched life as a mail carrier, complete with evil boss, unending rain, mail thieves, guard dogs, and general misery. One of the worst jobs ever rendered in fiction — but hey, it couldn’t happen to a worse guy than Henry Chinaski.
Then We Came to the End Joshua Ferris
The first-person plural has never seemed more apt — if you hate your cubicle, Ferris’ novel is the ultimate commiserator. Also, like the best of commiserators, this novel will make you laugh until you forget what you hated so much about your day — for a minute, anyway.
Something Happened, Joseph Heller
Heller’s second novel follows a dissatisfied middle-management suburbanite as he flails about his tedious job and equally tedious life. Vonnegut wrote of the book: “Something Happened is so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment. Depictions of utter hopelessness in literature have been acceptable up to now only in small dose, in short-story form, as in Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis,’ Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ or John D. MacDonald’s ‘The Hangover,’ to name a treasured few. As far as I know, though, Joseph Heller is the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length. Even more rashly, he leaves his major character, Slocum, essentially unchanged at the end.” Good for reading to remember that it’s not quite as bad as all that.
The Busconductor Hines, James Kelman
Look, let’s just say this: at least you aren’t driving a city bus in Glasgow. Without a license.
Out, Natsuo Kirino
This gripping novel focuses on four women who work the night shift in a Tokyo bento box factory. The grounds are unsafe. The job is boring. Their backs hurt. Then one of them kills her husband in a fit of righteous rage and the rest of them have to help her chop up and get rid of the body. No grand statements about friendship here, though. At the very least, it’ll really make you appreciate your coworkers and their non-murderous tendencies.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Yates’ chilling novel of suburban ennui also features some chilling scenes of office ennui — most memorably the long section in which Frank Wheeler describes his intricate system for moving paper around into different piles so he has to expend the least amount of mental energy possible. When he does look at a file, his eyes blur. You might relate, but no way can your ennui hold a candle to Frank’s.
The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker
A message from Nicholson Baker to you: getting completely sidetracked by your thoughts for an entire day? Totally fine. Also normal: the fact that you’re whistling the tune you heard someone else humming in the bathroom.
The Exception, Christian Jungersen
The Danish Center for Information on Genocide is just like your office — except when its employees start getting death threats and wind up taking their anger and anxiety out on the new librarian. A psychological thriller that will remind you that a boring job can actually be a very good thing.
The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka, Franz Kafka
Next time you refer to your job as “Kafkaesque,” challenge yourself to go back and get reminded what that actually means. Because probably it’s even bleaker than you thought.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Orwell’s first book, sometimes called a novel, sometimes a memoir, details his time spent as a plongeur (dishwasher) in a Parisian hotel. There’s nothing to do but let the man explain it himself:
I think one should start by saying that a plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. He is cut off from marriage, or, if he marries, his wife must work too. Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison. At this moment there are men with university degrees scrubbing dishes in Paris for ten or fifteen hours a day… To sum up. A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure.
The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger
Assistants at fashion magazines: the plongeurs of the upper-middle class.
Last Night at the Lobster, Stewart O’Nan
There’s actually something sort of lovely about this account of Manny the Manager’s final day at the Red Lobster, which will be closing five days before Christmas. Manny loves Red Lobster, despite how shitty it is, despite how markedly tedious, and his employees, despite the fact that they basically hate each other and him. Manny loves Red Lobster despite the fact that Red Lobster does not love him back. But whether this idea sends shivers of recognition or disgust down your spine, you can take heart: there is life after Red Lobster.
Personal Days, Ed Park
Sometimes all you need to get through the day is a good laugh. Park’s hilarious satire about office life (or perhaps more pointedly, this “layoff narrative”) will have you rolling in your cubicle. With laughter, I mean. Not with crying. One can only hope.
Kings of Infinite Space, James Hynes
And if you like your office satires a little more… well, let’s say supernatural, you may get a kick out of this one, which starts with the down-and-out Paul Trilby, who works in the General Services Division of the Texas Department of General Services, and finds its way to ghosts, zombies, and bottomless trash cans. Or maybe Trilby’s terrible job has just driven him insane.
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
Sure, it’s not just Patrick Bateman’s job as an investment banker that turns him into an insane person who (spoiler alert) only escapes his cage when he convinces himself he’s murdering people. It’s his whole culture. But still, reading this book will make you glad as hell you don’t work on Wall Street. If you do work on Wall Street, at least things aren’t this bad. Right? Right?
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
Another job so bad you’ll thank your stars for every cup of coffee you have to bring your terrible boss: slaughterhouse worker in Chicago at the turn of the century. In fact, Sinclair wrote this novel, about a Lithuanian immigrant working in a meatpacking plant, primarily to expose the horrible conditions in which factory workers toiled (Jack London called the book “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery”), but alas, readers focused more on the parts that could affect them — the unsanitary meat-handling practices. Which your current job probably also doesn’t have.
Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
Everybody in this book has a worse job than yours. Stephanie, who “wasn’t a ‘professional lady’ exactly; tricking was just something she slipped into, once a year or so, when she was feeling particularly revolted by clerical work, or when she couldn’t pay her bills.” Lisette, whose real name might be Jane, who is more comfortable with the term. Daisy, who works “in the clerical department of a filthy secondhand bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.” Most famously, Debby, who gets a job as a lawyer’s typist and winds up being sexually abused by him, leading to an even deeper sense of existential despair than she had at the beginning. Good times.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
There are a number of tragically/hilariously shitty jobs in this novel, but the worst might be Don Gately’s — not running a halfway house full of crazy people, but his other job, where he “sunlights on the side”: janitor at the Shattuck Shelter for Homeless Males. There, he has to clean up every kind of horrible mess imaginable, most memorably the “more hidden corner, over near the bank of little lockers for valuables, that’s always got sperm moving slowly down the walls. And way too much sperm for just one or two guys, either. The whole place smells like death no matter what the fuck you do.” Sorry about that. But hey, don’t you feel better about your job now?