A New Edge

So, the first week of 2011 has slipped by, and, as yet, I’m unable to detect anything particularly distinctive about its personality. Whether it will be a Year To Remember or a Year To Redecorate remains to be seen. But at least in terms of my reading list, it’s off to a good start.

My first read of the new year was “Personal Days” by Ed Park, not a new book (it was published in 2008) but one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. As I read it this last week I was enthralled by Park’s brilliant observations on human nature and the way it gets bent out of shape in the bizarre machinations of the modern office environment.

The world of the office has provided fertile ground for literary works ever since Dickens, in works such as “Bleak House,” created scathing portraits of the soul-crushing tombs where numbing routine and Byzantine power structures combine to drain the life out of workers. More recent authors have exposed the absurdity and pathos of modern office life. Notable examples include Joshua Ferris’s funny, yet deeply moving “Then We Came to the End” and Max Barry’s sharply comic “Company.” One of my personal favorites is Tom Holt’s gleefully insane fantasy “The Portable Door,” which posits an office where the boss from hell is, well, that pretty much says it all.

Like these novels, “Personal Days” is wry and thoughtful, but it steps farther out on the ledge where the Mad Men lurk. Park is a founding editor of The Believer and a former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement, and his novel stands out in part because of his own marvelous voice. Writing about an office operating under a kind of Machiavellian cloud, his descriptions of familiar office types are fresh and thrilling. Of a character dealing with a sudden onset of panic he writes: “It was like she’d been set in italics.”

In a tour de force monologue which stretches over several pages he describes one employee as “someone who would always have an ax to grind – who would, upon finishing the satisfactory grinding of one ax, refuse to relax, but instead go back to his cavernous ax storeroom and haul out another one that needed a new edge.”

Ah. That’s what I’m talking about. The first cut is the deepest.

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