A debut novel, set in a midsize metropolitan office, using a first-person-plural narrator to capture the collective consciousness of an amorphous workplace we: It’s difficult to avoid comparisons between Ed Park’s Personal Days and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End. Both books attempt to strike a balance between humor and sympathy, between the indignities of midlevel white-collardom and the quiet nobility of showing up every day to do your job. Under the shared influence of Don DeLillo, both apply his signature mixture of uneasy cross talk, misinformation, and paranoia to a period of seemingly random corporate layoffs. And both turn this downsizing into an existential problem: How do you carry on with the knowledge that any day might be your last? (“Who died?” are the first words of Personal Days.)
Then We Came to the End was among the best American novels of last year, so it’s a considerable compliment to Park to say that Personal Days suffers not at all from this association. Within his unnamed company—“a set of five initials, two of which don’t actually stand for anything”—Park has assembled a memorable cast of coworkers. There is Pru, the former grad student (“We think it was in art history, but maybe it was regular history, the kind without the art”); the pretentious and relentlessly self-improving Jonah (“Don’t we need eros in order for commerce to happen?” he asks during a sexual-harassment seminar); Laars, who “occasionally gives off an Ivy League vibe, but . . . actually went to a small liberal-arts college named Aorta or something”; the ineffectual boss named Russell but known as the Sprout, who speaks almost entirely in the corporate jargon of “sticks and carrots” and thinking “outside the box”; and the Sprout’s boss, whom no one ever sees enter or exit her office and who is known only as K.
This last, Kafkaesque note, introduced early, foreshadows a change that takes place about halfway through the novel. Where Ferris tested the limits of verisimilitude only as necessary for his particular brand of big-hearted satire, Park goes several steps further, courting absurdity. The book’s opening sections are essentially plotless, a series of observational vignettes about office life, some of them very funny. Yet a shift into something richer and stranger begins with the appearance of an enigmatic character nicknamed Grime, who seems at first merely eccentric but proves to be unhinged. With him arrive rumors that the increasingly inexplicable pattern of layoffs is related to something called Operation JASON.
To say much more about this plot turn would spoil a great deal of fun for the reader, but it comes to a head in the novel’s last section, an e-mail from Jonah to Pru, written in a single, forty-eight-page sentence. This long unparagraphed stretch calls to mind Beckett and Bernhard, and Park encourages the association by alluding to both. But the vision here is not so pessimistic, and despite all the comparisons it invites, Personal Days proves by its end to be wholly and strikingly its own.