It’s a Living

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace BY Nikil Saval. Doubleday. Hardcover, 368 pages. $26.

The cover of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

One of my favorite moments in Cubed, Nikil Saval’s lush, funny, and unexpectedly fascinating history of the workplace, comes in a chapter called “The Birth of the Office,” in which the author describes the insane yet rampant “efficiency” craze that began to sweep the nation in 1900. One of its outgrowths was a periodical called System, subtitled A Monthly Magazine for the Man of Affairs. “Each volume,” Saval writes, “had articles proposing new models for the minutiae of office life, whether a new system of filing or a more efficient mode of envelope licking.” (In 1929, the magazine changed to a weekly—and called itself BusinessWeek.)

By sheer coincidence, I was perusing System’s less-than-colorful history on my way to a gig at City Lights Bookstore, where preparations were in full throttle for the celebration of William Burroughs’s one hundredth birthday. At that legendary Beat Generation mecca, I was surrounded by posters of Burroughs’s face, staring grimly in my direction, looking every bit like the midwestern Bürgermeister he by rights should have been, given his legacy as grandson of the original William S. Burroughs, founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company.

The juxtaposition felt perfect, somehow, given that the great delights of Saval’s opus are the segments he lifts from modern management literature. Saval deserves a lifetime supply of Advil, not just for the almost perverse depth of his headache-inducing research—the Proceedings of the 1935 Conference of the National Office Management Association! the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair! the Secret History of the Aeron Chair!—but also for the heroic effort he undertakes in successfully weaving his disparate dry-as-toast sources into genuine entertainment.

Finding myself so Burroughs adjacent, it was impossible not to hear whole chunks of the über-American material expertly collated in Cubed as if uttered by the man himself, in the gentleman junkie’s dour mortician-turned–carnival barker Kansas drawl. Imagine, if you will, Uncle Bill reading this howler, lifted from noted expert W. H. Leffingwell’s eight-hundred-page go-to textbook, 1925’s Office Management. Listen: “The average person should drink water at least five or six times a day. If each of one hundred clerks in an office were compelled to walk fifty feet to, and fifty feet from, the fountain, five times a day, each one would walk five hundred feet a day. Multiplied by one hundred clerks the distance traveled would be fifty thousand feet, or nearly ten miles! Multiplied by three hundred working days, the clerks would be walking three thousand miles for water in a year.”

Paging Dr. Benway! What Burroughs and the other Leffingwell types who populate Saval’s chronicle share is an obsession with control. On one level, Cubed can be seen as a study of how authority maintains authority—and of how the subjugated stay subjugated, in ways spoken and unspoken. Saval goes to great lengths to show how oppressive structure exists not just as a matter of corporate policy but in the very architecture of the workplace—the physical boundaries within which the business of business is carried out. As Saval notes, the actual walls—or lack thereof—of the office space dictate the terms of the occupants’ status. Cubed takes us on the happy journey from cozy countinghouse rooms at the turn of the last century to open-plan offices in the wide-open ’60s and ’70s to the heinous hell-boxes born out of the mass layoffs of the ’80s. In the wake of this latter shakeout, Saval writes, “corporations responded by giving a privileged elite the few remaining offices while cramming everyone else into partitioned spaces.”

This was the era famously captured by Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, in which he birthed the phrase “veal-fattening pen” as a painfully accurate description of the office cubicle. These holding facilities, Coupland memorably observed, were “small, cramped office workstations built of fabric-covered disassemblable wall portions and inhabited by junior staff members. Named after the small pre-slaughter cubicles used in the cattle industry.” A grim stop, in other words, where the life-hating, managerially disrespected masses can kill time until they’re led to their own metaphorical killing floor to be laid off.

All this talk of design and repression brings to mind the resemblance Black Panthers first pointed out between slave-ship design and the layouts of supermax prisons. Saval gives us statistics on the dimensions of a standard worker-bee workstation circa 2006, “when the average cubicle was seventy-five square feet.” According to the latest information, the average Solitary Housing Unit at Pelican Bay supermax averages about eleven and a half by seven and a half feet. So in this case, if in few others, convicts serving time in solitary come out ahead of salaried cubicle dwellers. It’s true that prisoners are also confined in their windowless environment twenty-three hours of every day. On the other hand, SHU residents have an hour to exercise, which may be more than the average cubicle drone can squeeze in in the course of trying to stay alive on temp pay. Federal inmates also have that most elusive and controversial social good of all: government-funded health care, administered in what amounts to a single-payer system.

Still, for all this edifying detail, some readers may greet the prospect of a sprawling treatise on workplace design and management theory as something of a slog. I felt a twinge of dread myself when I first cracked the pages of Cubed—though in my case, I think I can write off this reaction to a kind of mild, office-related PTSD. My own cubicle experience, heinous in the extreme, involved selling long-life lightbulbs out of a Phoenix boiler room to elderly snowbirds. As we dialed and recited, a “supervisor” tromped up and down the alley that ran between the rows of cubicles, listening in and taking over whenever we had a live one. There was fluorescent lighting and no windows. Each cubicle had a beige push-button phone, each phone had a pad, and beside the pad, each morning, management placed a new and updated xeroxed list of openings. “Hello, Mr. or Mrs. Home-All-Day-and-Lonely-Enough-to-Talk-to-a-Cold-Calling-Stranger, would you be interested if I told you I could save you $250 a year—on lightbulbs? And you won’t have to spend more than a dime a day!” Even now, decades later, I still wake up and hear myself mumbling the closer: “If you don’t have to worry about saving money, I apologize for taking your time.

The genius of Cubed is that Saval recognizes the mood of barely controlled panic that suffuses most American offices, and tracks it through every element of the overmanaged, time-sucking, and keystroke-counting world of work. And what’s interesting, once the reader becomes used to Saval’s treatment of office life as a lens through which to view American Civilization (if you’ll pardon the expression), is how the mythology of Horatio Alger–esque merit-based advancement continues, in open defiance of a managerial ethos devoted to controlling, designing, and depersonalizing the work experience to within an inch of its life. Of course, in Alger’s day, folks actually believed an office boy with pluck could make something of himself, and maybe end up with his own going concern. Today, by contrast, there is barely a pretense of belief in upward mobility—regardless of how often politicians and business leaders continue to march out the idea—so the old meritocratic myth now functions a bit like the experience that recent amputees report of seeming to possess a phantom limb.

So jolly did we Americans find the whole notion of countinghouse careerdom, in the Alger tradition, that in 1889 Parker Brothers put out a board game called Office Boy. Players could land on spots like “INTEGRITY—ADVANCE TO JR. PARTNER” or (my personal favorite) “DISSIPATION—GO BACK TO SHIPPER.” The modern version, of course, would have to include “COMPANY BOUGHT OUT BY BAIN—BEGIN NEW CAREER IN CAN-AND-BOTTLE COLLECTION.”

In highlighting just this kind of mordant interpenetration of the regimes of American work and fun, Cubed stands as one of those books readers can open to any page and find the kind of insight they’ll want to yank strangers out of their bus or subway seats and repeat. In one typical, weirdly riveting vignette, Saval tells us of the hotbeds of prostitution and drink that sprang up near lower Broadway’s early business centers. (Hence the aforementioned dissipation.) These taverns and houses of ill repute were, apparently, patronized by clerks and scribes, a class characterized as fops and weaklings by no less an authority than Walt Whitman. Here’s how the bard of “Democratic Vistas” decried the country’s new clerical workforce: “a slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face and hollow chest . . . trig and prim in great glow of shiny boots, clean shirts—sometimes, just now, of extraordinary patterns, as if over-run with bugs!—tight pantaloons . . . and hair all soaked and ‘slickry’ with sickening oils.” The poet goes so far as to wonder “what wretched, spindling, ‘forked radishes’ would they be, and how ridiculously would their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stript naked?”

There’s something undeniably beautiful about manly Mr. Whitman’s vitriol at the fey heteros mincing out of their offices and stinking up the atmosphere with their perfume and hair oils. His rant leads us to the great unexamined subwing of American Arts & Letters, what might be called cube lit. And in this tradition—putting aside the unreadable Alger corpus—the first, and still probably most mysterious, entrant is Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

Bartleby’s days are eaten up at his uncomfortable desk, copying documents. But then one fateful morning, Bartleby’s employer asks him to leave his desk for a moment, come into the boss’s office, and help him compare two documents. To which, in one of the classically freighted sentences in American literature, Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.” From this one seemingly bland bit of intransigence, chaos is unleashed. The employer, a lawyer, eventually has to flee his office, and Bartleby himself ends up hauled off to jail, where, unable to satisfy his appetite for copying documents, he literally starves to death.

Saval revisits this great founding text of cube lit, along with others, ranging from Brave New World (in which Aldous Huxley decries the damage wrought on humanity when everyone’s identity is contained in some central file cabinet) to Cheaper by the Dozen (in which a family tries to apply efficiency principles to their home, and high jinks ensue); there’s also John Dos Passos, whose elegy for a productivity-crazed manager in his modernist U.S.A. trilogy could perhaps serve as a eulogy for America’s homegrown strain of corporate employee-grinders. “He couldn’t stand to see an idle lathe or an idle man. Production went to his head and thrilled his sleepless nerves like liquor or women on a Saturday night. . . . On the morning of his fiftyninth birthday, when the nurse went into his room to look at him at fourthirty, he was dead with his watch in his hand.”

Welcome, Nikil Saval tells us finally in this beautifully written, original, and essential masterpiece, to the future that never went away.

Jerry Stahl is the author of eight books, including Permanent Midnight (Warner, 1995), I, Fatty (Bloomsbury, 2004), and Happy Mutant Baby Pills (William Morrow, 2013).