Reviewed by Jack Messenger
An Accidental Profession
by Daniel S. Jones
ISBN 0998562009 (print), ISBN 0998562017 (digital), 2017
Why can novels about people at work be so pleasurably captivating? Undoubtedly, it’s rather nice to think that others are toiling away while we read about them, and the similarities and differences with our own working lives emerge with unusual clarity: occupations do not have to be exotic or abstruse for us to find them fascinating. An Accidental Profession is all about work: its organization and administration, what it does to people, the power of the corporation, our ambivalent relationships with our co-workers.
Daniel Jones makes some strategic stylistic decisions in telling his story, which takes place over a few days of diegetic time and involves layoffs, corporate restructuring and a trip to a conference, where the interestingly analytical narrator turns out to be less above the things he describes than we might have thought. Significantly, the company for whom everyone works, the Canterbury Education Company (CEC), provides products and services to institutions of higher education; this rather vague and vaguely parasitic corporation strikes just the right postmodern note in a narrative given over to the opaque manoeuverings of executives and staff alike.
The first-person narration works extremely well: descriptions of past events are sufficiently numerous to avoid the potentially soporific effect of all those third-person singulars in the here and now. Another important decision is that no one is named; instead, they are alphabetized and anonymized: A——, B——, C—— etc. Shades of Kafka’s Joseph K—— are immediately evoked but, more significantly, the suggestion of interchangeable productive units is never far off, as is the peculiar blend of distant friend and intimate stranger that co-workers can constitute for each other.
An Accidental Profession is concerned with how hard it is to preserve our specificity, our uniqueness, our interconnectivity in a modern work environment:
People here have a habit of disappearing – either they are fired or quit or get transferred, in which case we never see them once they are gone from the office. Or they get absorbed into their job and become something else entirely. Either way, the struggle is to keep something of yourself alive before it is entirely deleted. We spend the years in pursuit of similar goals, being around other people without having to get close to them. Sharing in the illusion of having friends, but in fact not really knowing these people with whom we spend the majority of our waking hours.
It’s in this awkward, near-impossible non-space of the heart and head that the aspiration for something real and nourishing struggles to be articulated, appropriately and inappropriately:
What I cannot reach, what I have not been able to shed, is the idea that there is something more than compensation, that work should be worthwhile in and of itself, rather than for its rewards. Somewhere, we are told, is an office in which employees are excited to work, enjoy their jobs, collect their pay with happiness. A place, it seems, where they do not plan their days as a series of time-wasting exercises in fifteen minute chunks, taking long walks around the work spaces, taking smoke breaks even though they have quit smoking, riding the elevator one floor to use the bathroom, reading novels tucked beneath their desks or falling in love when one shouldn’t or having anonymous sex in the stairwells. And yet the promise of business, not of this or that particular business, but the promise of business itself, is that somewhere people can take meaning from what they do to earn their pay. This is the elusive promise, the unanswerable question. In any case, as an employee, as a businessman, my purpose in life is not to find answers to these questions, ultimately, but to survive, a process that must admit this stark reality.
There are many references to truth in An Accidental Profession: the narrator frequently asserts in passing that he is speaking it; it is a precious commodity buried beneath an avalanche of corporate-speak and ungrammatical inter-office emails; it has to be gleaned from the gossip of co-workers, via observations of their movements. There is a kind of corporate aphasia that stifles true feeling which, when it does emerge, can be shy and painful:
When F—— stands to leave I come out from behind my desk and lean to shake his hand. It is not the typical handshake for our office, a contest of strength, a who-can-squeeze-whose-hand hardest, but a more friendly connection: handshake, fingers clasped, fists, and then a one-armed hug that alarms me for a moment but not enough to pull away.
It is touching that the narrator keeps a copy of Wallce Stevens’ Harmonium on his office bookshelf, sandwiched between ‘The Ultimate Corporate Strategy Resource and The Fundamentals of Accounting.’ It is an act of resistance – perhaps merely a gesture at resistance – from someone who has survived in his job and part of whose job it is to fire others.
The central controlling metaphor of An Accidental Profession is of the red-crested cardinals that peck and flutter at the office window of the nameless narrator. Dead ladybugs (UK: ladybirds) accumulate along the edge of the windowsill every spring, and the birds attempt to reach them through the glass. The significance the birds hold for the narrator – his attachment to them, the distraction they provide – codes him as different, as ‘ours’, enabling us to enter comfortably into his reasonings and observations. However, we are also invited to regard the behaviour of the birds – particularly the complex interactions of males and females – as correlative with the behaviour of the office workers distributed at their work stations in a large open-plan office. One may be less convinced by this than intended: zoological comparisons only extend so far; culture – human and office – is an anamorphic lens that splays nature in myriad dazzling ways.
An Accidental Profession is a little too long and is occasionally marred by typos; it could certainly do with more action and fewer contemplations; ultimately, the pledge of its journey is not sufficiently redeemed by its conclusion. Nevertheless it is enjoyable and comforting in ways that books about people working usually are; it has a quiet anguish about the indignities of work that many will recognize; it is an act of resistance.