Prime of Life

Seasonal Associate BY Heike Geissler. edited by Katy Derbyshire, Kevin Vennemann. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 240 pages. $16.

The cover of Seasonal Associate

Heike Geissler, the German novelist and translator, ran out of money in the winter of 2010 and took a temporary job at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig to support her two children. As she tells us in the opening pages of her book about that experience, she was not intending to write a book about that experience. But intention is one thing and canniness another; a real writer’s canniness never deserts her. “Though the work was physically and mentally exhausting,” her translator explains, Geissler “managed to take notes on Post-its” during her six weeks at the warehouse, and write more detailed impressions at night.

Those Post-its make Geissler sound like a journalist—going undercover to show the human cost of our convenience addiction, if you like. But this is not a work of journalism. In fact, before she wrote Seasonal Associate, Geissler reportedly attempted a straight-nonfiction version of the story and five publishers rejected it. One possible explanation is that Geissler lacked the material; nothing of consequence happens while she works at the warehouse, and there are no smoking guns. Books about tedious situations with no narrative tend to rank poorly on Amazon.

After the botched journalistic project, Geissler approached the material a second time, producing Seasonal Associate, a hybrid of memoir and theory. This book succeeded where the first attempt failed. Slanting her attention a few degrees away from the Amazon empire, Geissler wrote about the banality of postmodern labor, the passage of days inside a warehouse, the dilution of identity over time. In a final break from journalistic convention, she narrated the story in the second person, staking out a distance from hard fact—“You” never worked for Amazon—and thereby gaining some room to play. Geissler read this new text aloud and posted the audio on her website, where it attracted the attention of the German editor Mathias Zeiske. After the book was published in 2014, Geissler took down the recordings.

Seasonal Associate begins with a job interview at the Amazon complex on Amazonstrasse. At first, the whole thing seems like “an excursion, an adventure”—like a lark. “You’re not actually here to write about it,” Geissler says, “but you have nothing against experiences and insights.” At the end of the chapter, however, as Geissler sinks beneath her economic predicament (“you have kids who want things every half hour”), the tone darkens. “You’ve completely forgotten that you have a profession and are only here to alleviate momentary poverty,” she writes. “Something inside you is essentially unsettled and will never calm down again, even though you do get the job. From this point on, you are beside yourself with worry.”

Amazon warehouse, Madrid, 2013. Álvaro Ibáñez/Flickr
Amazon warehouse, Madrid, 2013. Álvaro Ibáñez/Flickr

She returns to the complex for a training session. The trainers’ cheeriness rings atonally against her mounting sense of dread, like an advertisement for antidepressants playing in the common room of a prison. “We call each other by our first names here,” one trainer explains. “We’re an international corporation but as you know our roots are in America. And Americans don’t have a formal term of address like the German Sie, so we don’t use it either.” In addition to this patronizing informality, Geissler notices an unexpected cheapness. The reception area doesn’t have a normal desk but a door on sawhorses, “a symbol of stinginess” that represents the first desk owned by Jeff Bezos. “Does the customer want us to be sitting here on comfy sofas?” the trainer says. “Does the customer want to pay for smart offices for us?” Then he advises them to lift with their legs. “Sick days harm Amazon.”

Issued a fish knife and a pair of cut-resistant gloves, Geissler is shown to her workstation in the cold, drafty warehouse. Racks of merchandise reach the ceiling. A forklift deposits a pallet of products beside her. The fish knife slices through the shrink-wrap. She scans the items one by one, inspecting them for damage and discarding any rejects. Then she places them either on another pallet or in a small box called a tote. Sometimes the computer monitor displays an error message, indicating that an item has been misrouted, and a “problem solver” arrives at her workstation, miserably pushing a desk on wheels. Once Geissler has completed a pallet, she presses a button to switch on a red light above the workstation, signaling to a forklift driver.

To my knowledge, Geissler’s book is the first to present Amazon’s products as they appear in real time to the worker. Reading her lists made me nauseous, the way staring at a spinning compass needle might. These items do not relate to one another in any discernible way. There is no organizing consciousness. There is only an algorithm, directing the traffic of not-yet-trash: car-seat covers, suitcases, glass bathtub ducks, Advent calendars filled with tea bags with politicians’ faces on them, something called an Alpine Hairdryer Grossglockner, Mombel-brand stuffed rabbits, dog baskets, distressed Iron Maiden baseball hats, cheese graters, punching bags, and mugs with self-portraits by George Clooney and Madonna. This goes on for about six weeks. “You’re exhausted now,” she writes. “Not just physically; your mind, which is also a little bit your heart, has sustained damage as well.”

What damages the heart, aside from the disgraceful labor itself, seems to be the act of earning money from something other than writing. When a former friend’s book turns up on Geissler’s pallet, she thinks: “I bet he has time right now to think about his next work; it would have to be called a work, and he’d have to be called a successful writer.” That association of money with artistic success, with all its dubious connotations, sits at the core of Geissler’s book.

There was a time when an artist in a blue-collar job would have derided her commercially successful competitor as a sellout bourgeois hack. For writers today, the mark of success is a stable income, a union, a teaching job, health insurance, and so on—vital protections they should demand and enjoy. But the hyperprofessionalism of the writing class means the identity of a writer gets associated with the source of her cash. There is a keen focus on the butter side of the bread. In my MFA program, they talked about Faulkner working the night shift at a power plant while completing As I Lay Dying in six weeks. But no one expected to work at a power plant. We expected to receive grants to complete our novels.

The more professionalized writers become, the fewer books we have by laborers. Stunt journalism, where a reporter embeds within poverty for a book or an article, can capture the details of life on the margins but not the feeling of being trapped there. In 2014, after a twenty-four-year-old Foxconn employee named Xu Lizhi killed himself by jumping from a window in his dormitory, poems were discovered among his papers, and the Shenzhen Evening News published them along with an article about his death:

Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion
When I first set foot in this place
I hoped only for that grey pay slip on the tenth of each month

Another worker wrote a poem in response: “You die in place of me / And I keep writing in place of you.” (Imagine that sentence being produced by any MFA program in the country.) Geissler acknowledges plainly that her own book does not belong in the same category as Xu’s, though she wants to read more work like his: “You wish national newspapers would carry regular columns, glosses, and articles written by employees.”

One obvious example of an employee writing in a journalistic style, the young George Orwell provides an antecedent to Geissler. Like Seasonal Associate, Down and Out in Paris and London describes a specific warren of capitalism—Orwell’s “Hotel X” is Geissler’s Amazon warehouse—and also attends closely to the humiliations of being poor. Geissler’s envy at seeing her friend’s book on her pallet correlates to Orwell’s shame at seeing a prosperous friend approaching on the street in Paris. (He hides in a café.)

But Geissler’s challenge is different than Orwell’s, because her material is flatter. The Hotel X overflows with scheming and quarreling and aspiring. Dishwashers get two liters of wine a day; characters tell raunchy and long-winded stories. On the few occasions when fellow employees talk to Geissler, on the other hand, their stories are flattened, odd, and sad: “When I moved out after the divorce, my [daughter] decided I should take the family parakeet with me to my new apartment so I wouldn’t get lonely. Then [my dog] bit the bird’s head off, unfortunately.” Orwell shares tobacco and brandy and insults. Geissler waits 172 pages for a coworker even to introduce herself by name. To treat the Leipzig warehouse with the warmth and looseness of Orwell would be absurd; Amazon shears those shopworn tropes off the surface of reality, leaving only a fluorescent-lit Hades. The shades get a few minutes to tell their stories, then the forklift returns.

Jesse Barron is a journalist based in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.