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Personal Days

by Ed Park (Random House, 2008)

Much as one would prefer not to, Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End must be mentioned at the outset of any discussion of Ed Park's Personal Days. Had Mr Park's novel come out first, then it would be the unavoidable reference. The two books are, for the moment, inseparable. (How long, I wonder, will that last?) Both books are very good, and they have different strengths. Then We Came to the End is deeply existential in tone, and the reader will soon find himself complicit in the collective "we" that, as in the first part of Personal Days, narrates the tale.

Personal Days is more intensely plotted, and it has a very satisfying surprise ending. It is also not nearly so nostalgic. One has the sense that Mr Park is about ten years younger than Mr Ferris, something that need not be the case for the effect to be achieved. Both books are funny, but Personal Days is depressing rather than sad. Although both novels portray business organizations in decline, the world of Personal Days seems considerably more degraded, as if a decade of economic downturn separated them.

Both books, however, are about modern office life, and the unimportance, to its producers, of the end-product of their work. Both authors wear cynicism as lightly as a dash of cologne. Inevitably and pointlessly readers and critics will strive to distinguish their scents, but cynicism is what both writers are working away from, toward whatever passion and hope they can put their hands on. Yearning makes ripping page-turners of both books.

It is also not surprising that both books pick up considerable emotional wattage when they cut down the point of view to that of one person. In Then We Came to the End, the main body of the story is interrupted, midway, by a beautiful novella, "The Thing to Do and the Place to Be." We follow Lynn, a boss about whom we've heard nothing but the usual anxious speculation, through the long vigil of her breast cancer surgery. In Personal Days, this elegy in the third person is replaced by an exciting, run-on email, written by someone trapped in a stalled elevator. It is also the culmination of everything that we have read, not a lyrical intermezzo that stands apart from it.

One could go on in this way, parsing even finer distinctions. One would rather not, but there are two things about Personal Days that make treating the book on its own impossible. First, the kind of similarities that can be seen, as it were, from across the room mark the books as siblings, if not fraternal twins. Second, Personal Days can't be written about without spoiling. We can congratulate Mr Park on a finely-modulated progression of narrative voices, from the anxious by larky collective of "Can't Undo," composed in short chapters consisting of very short sections, each with its own clever heading; to the confused paranoia of a heavily outlined dossier, "Replace All," in which we are introduced to the ominously unaccountable "Grime" (as this Brit, actually called "Graham," names himself, in a dark counterpoint to Crease, a former private-school teacher who's been stalked by a former student of foreign extraction); to the final unformatted piece of email in "Revert to Saved." But we can't really talk about what happens not until everyone has read the book.

Mr Park's characters live in a twilit nightmare of both dreading that they'll be fired and hoping that they'll be released a venerable predicament in this mortal vale of tears; but also a dilemma that, like Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go, the author presents with a very fresh sting. The ambivalence shared by victims and survivors is like an unexpected bump in an ill-lit corridor.

II (I) ii: They all rode down in silence. It was barely 3 but a drink was in order. Outside Pru was smoking and Jenny told her in a tiny voice what everyone else already knew,m the full list of casualties. Pru wrapped an elbow around her in a complicated way, a hug that didn't require abandoning her cigarette.
Where's Maxine? someone said.
    Jenny wasn't crying yet but it sounded like someone was. It was the crane at the construction site down the street, squeaking as it lowered a voluptuous payload. The infinity building was shaping up, with much of the curved blue glass already in place for the lower floors.
    They found their faces in it as they walked by. When they looked up they saw that the snow was really coming down, so swiftly it unmoored them. It felt like the world was rushing up to meet the sky.
    Over drinks Jenny was fine for five minutes and then started to break down. Chunks of her seemed to fall off and die and for the rest of the night she was crying or just about to start. You guys are, never going to, see me again, she said, gasping. They knew that this was true but told her it wasn't.
    We see Jules all the time, they said. We go to his toaster-oven restaurant.
the verb tense was dubious. They went only once as a group and would never go again if they could help it.
    But Jules is different, said Jenny. Jules is fun. I'm so boring. You'll forget about me. It's OK. It's OK.
    Jules is a nutcase, said Laars.
    We'll keep in touch, said Pru. We'll e-mail. Pru was always realistic about those sorts of things.
    Grime wandered in late. He made a loud offer to buy drinks for the evening and said he'd set up a tab at the bar but never got around to it.
    Despite all the crying, Jenny looked pretty good, indeed noticeably better than she usually did.
Her eyes shimmered and her mouth had an appealing pout. Several of them remarked on this the next day at work.

Dreadful as being fired feels when it happens the humiliation always comes as a surprise, as does the instant eradication that follows it never seems to have unpleasant consequences. Jules, of the toaster-oven restaurant, is already off the scene by the time the book begins, but he is clearly thriving. Some former colleagues disappear altogether, while others turn up later, but bad news never filters back to the office. It seems that Pru and Laars and Crease and the others are bound by a kind of cubicle psychosis: lacking, by and large, other attachments, they feed on one another's company and appear to derive the meaning of life from the impressions of fellow-workers for whom, truth be told, they may not care very much. It's as though working at this unnamed company, engaged in its unspecified business, they are living through a slow-motion disaster, an earthquake in freeze-frame, that will not end until they walk out of the funky lower-Manhattan office building for the last time assuming that blasting in the neighborhood doesn't cause it to topple. The unaffectionate intimacy with which these young people cohabit adjacent cubicles gives the book a snarkily cheerful surface beneath which flow unpredictably chilly currents.

In the end, what distinguishes Personal Days is a haziness of identity: although his characters are fully realized as distinct beings, Mr Park has lowered their profiles, their general interest, to the extent that none of them seems promising enough to be the free-standing hero or heroine of his or her own book. When one of the survivors discovers that the company can't, for technical reasons, keep track of personal days (so that an employee might take an unlimited number of days off), the futility of life postponed, of suspended animation, saturates the page. As writer Gary Shteyngart says in a blurb, "I laughed until they put me in a mental hospital." Exactly. (August 2008)

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