Books About Work

Unlike television—where every profession is indicated through props, like a cup from Starbucks—novels often let their characters do the work. Work is a fount of material, what with the complaining, cheating, procrastinating, backbiting, tedium. Not working too. Being unemployed is taxing! Every novel about a rich person who doesn’t work could be marketed with the tagline Everybody works. And who can argue with that? Not a writer.

Before Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York (1986), there was Born Losers, a story collection by Barbara Skelton. The first story, “Orphan of Manhattan,” follows an English girl visiting from London, who upon arrival spends all her money and exhausts all her contacts, so must get a job, any job, every job. She works as a bookseller, a model/salesgirl on the floor of a Junior Miss Department (“sometimes to embarrass me one of my friends would come in and hover about the rails pretending to seek a bargain”), an assistant to a prosthodontist (“He was a dedicated dentist with no sense of time. A kind of saint”), a nanny for “spoilt children and old ladies.” She gets used to New York. “By now I conform to the pattern of the American way of life. After twenty weeks of employment I qualify for relief. . . . Like most other people on 14th Street I wave my arms and mutter aloud to an invisible invincible enemy.” There’s none of the desperation, depression, and drudgery you find in the current generation’s tales of working part-time in the precarity industries, but if you’re looking for that sort of thing, I recommend Halle Butler’s The New Me and Amie Barrodale’s You Are Having a Good Time.

I’ve been describing Ducks, Newburyport to everyone I know as Gaddis for Housewives. A compliment. Like J R, this is a book about the futility of human kindness, progress, purpose, housework, work work—and, above all, sanity. When she’s not fretting and wrangling four children, not to mention the chickens, the narrator of Ducks bakes pies for a living. Like Harry Mathews’s “Country Cooking from Central France”—a complicated recipe for farce double disguised as an essay—this is a 1,040-page “How I Get It Done” piece on The Cut masquerading as a romp. Set in 2017.

The overeducated mother of a small child is a particular mix of scatterbrained, enlightened, snappish, touched. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2000), about the whip-smart mother of a child genius, painted a particularly noble portrait. Disturbances in the Field, a less deranged but similarly heartening addition to the genre, is about a chamber musician on the Upper West Side in Manhattan scrambling to balance her life’s work with raising her four children. The interludes where she meets with her book club—friends from her undergraduate days at Barnard—delight for their insistence on actual philosophical ideas. An entire chapter is devoted to Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale,” “a parable teaching how to submit to the reversals of fortune,” something people in their forties know something about. In the story, a husband doubts his wife’s fealty, and stages a series of tests that end when she is asked to sleep with another man. She seems about to acquiesce, requesting only that she bring her dowry with her. It’s a trick. A poor girl, her dowry was only her body. “Surely he would not wish her to leave the palace naked. In a career of passivity it is her single brilliant moment.” Career girls, take note.

When I think about books about work, I’m really thinking about books where people are incapable of working. Like An Underachiever’s Diary by Benjamin Anastas and The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy, Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette is a classic of the genre. Spoiled girl shirks her duties, and rends a nation. She has her come-to-Jesus moment too late, but Zweig really sells it.

I prefer dark books about the literary world, like Leaving a Doll’s House (a memoir by Philip Roth’s ex). Elbowing the Seducer is the cruelest and the best. The story flits between a pathetic, philandering magazine editor, Howard, and his newest love interest, a young writer he quickly underestimates. Her ambition is so out of control it’s poignant. (“There remained the question of whether or not she’d be saved.”) We watch her fate hang in the balance she’s erected for herself. It slanders everyone: “Howard preferred literate sex. Of course, if that wasn’t available, he’d take anything.”

The Book of the New Sun, the four-volume epic of “science fantasy” by Gene Wolfe, is a series grown men love to talk about, thinking they are esoteric for moving beyond The Lord of the Rings. And maybe they are. As with all great fantasy books, the whole point is to impart wisdom. (“Gurloes was one of the most complex men I have known, because he was a complex man trying to be simple. Not a simple, but a complex man’s idea of simplicity.”) The first in the series, The Shadow of the Torturer, is a simple, straightforwardly magical book, with masterful world building, about the adventures of a fired boy—a torturer who loses his job for feeling empathy for the woman he is supposed to behead. A love story for unemployed people.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer from Montana living in Manhattan.