Fatigue and Futility
by Eloise Hendy
Bloomsbury 416pp ISBN 9781526622242 £12.99
A few years ago, I worked for a telemarketing company. Each week I logged onto a ‘self-service portal’ and clicked on a handful of blank squares. Each week various squares were greyed out; the longer you worked for the company, the more vacant squares you could access. As a new starter, the only shifts available were evening shifts. So, four times a week, in the depths of an Edinburgh winter, I walked for an hour to an anonymous office building near the docks, found my cubicle, and began making calls. I clocked in at 17.00 and out at 22.00. In five hours I would make roughly 200 calls. I rarely spoke to anyone, except for disembodied voices through the phone, which also surfaced rarely over the automated buzz and click occupying my headset like tinnitus.
At every opportunity the company stressed its reputation and the value of the employment it offered. Every permanent employee’s email signature ended with the word, ‘Gamechangers!’
At the end of one shift, I realised my phone wasn’t in my pocket. All callers had been instructed to remove phones from our desk while calling — the supervisors wanted us constantly attentive to the ringing. So, before launching that shift’s call list, I slipped my phone into my coat pocket, slung over the back of my chair. Roughly 200 calls later, it was gone. After a few confused minutes, I realised the only explanation for its sudden disappearance was that the caller in the adjacent cubicle had slipped his hand into my pocket and taken it. When had he done it? How many hours had we sat beside each other afterward, separated by a flimsy plastic partition?
I wanted to leave the job after this, but I didn’t. I stayed long enough to work another shift with the guy, and then stayed longer. Our eyes met across the rows of cubicles and my palms itched.
I thought of this job incessantly while reading Kikuko Tsumura’s novel There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job (translated from Japanese by Polly Barton). At the opening of the book, a woman sits on an office chair and stares at two screens, both of which show the same man, also sitting on an office chair, staring at a screen. Her job is to watch him. It soon emerges that she has taken ‘The Surveillance Job’ after visiting an employment agency and asking for a job that is ‘very uneventful’ — one requiring no reading, no writing’, and, preferably, ‘very little thinking’. ‘Ideally,’ she suggests to her recruiter, ‘something along the lines of sitting all day in a chair overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skincare products.’ The recruiter, Mrs Masakado, seems to readily oblige — surely there is little difference between ‘overseeing the extraction of collagen,’ and overseeing the mundane movements of an author with writer’s block? Certainly, the narrator initially declares ‘there were very few jobs that ate up as much time and as little brainpower as watching over the life of a novelist who lived alone and worked from home.’
‘The Surveillance Job’ would appear then to be what David Graeber calls ‘a bullshit job’; it’s essentially meaningless, and the narrator knows it. Indeed, she seems to echo Graeber’s assertion that ‘huge swathes of people’ are ‘basically paid to do nothing,’ as she states ‘it was weird because I worked such long hours, and yet, even while working, I was basically doing nothing’. And it’s not just The Surveillance Job that’s ‘bullshit’; each chapter opens with the promise of a new temporary position. On face value, each seems easier, more ‘uneventful’, and potentially more pointless than the last: the narrator writes audio adverts for the town bus service; writes trivia for packets of rice crackers; goes door-to-door swapping posters; works alone in a hut in a forest park, perforating exhibition tickets. As Graeber attests of the contemporary work regime, with every visit to Mrs Masakado it increasingly feels ‘as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs’ just for the sake of keeping everyone working.
So, why is the narrator seeking a meaningless job? Desiring to read nothing, think nothing and do nothing, she seems to yearn for nonexistence; to be brain dead; a machine. Why? Well, because she has apparently suffered a form of brain death already. Having left her last job ‘because it had sucked up every scrap of energy I had until there was not a shred left,’ she is seeking an effortless vacancy because she’s running on empty. She has burnout.
Coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 when, after an extended period of working long hours, he found himself incapable of experiencing joy, ‘burnout’ has become a buzzword in recent years. An enervating psychic state marked by emotional exhaustion, a pervasive sense of futility, and the depletion of empathy, care and compassion, the condition is now frequently used as an umbrella term for the cognitive damage and distress wrought by the conditions of late capitalism. Indeed, according to Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, it shouldn’t be understood as ‘an affliction experienced by relatively few . . . but, increasingly, and particularly among millennials, the contemporary condition.’
‘If I read more than one side of A4 a day, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of such despondency that I was unable to function,’ Tsumura’s protagonist explains. ‘At the same time, my brain would fire up and I’d be on full alert.’ This seemingly paradoxical sense of inertia and overstimulation is crucial to the experience of burnout, which, as psychoanalyst Josh Cohen writes, ‘combines an intense yearning for a state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained.’ As Tsumura’s narrator suggests, this is ‘a really tiresome combination.’ ‘You feel burnout,’ Cohen continues, ‘when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.’ Petersen also stresses the unrelenting nature of burnout: ‘exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.’ This is exhaustion taken to extremes. It’s staying long enough to be depleted, robbed of something vital, and then staying a bit longer.
As a portrait of depersonalisation and emotional exhaustion, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job sits alongside a clutch of recent novels about millennial women and millennial work. The blurb predictably cites Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but could equally have mentioned Halle Butler’s The New Me, or Ling Ma’s Severance. All revolve around women defined by a sense of futility, their own unreality, and an utter depletion of care. ‘Really and truly, I didn’t care,’ Tsumura’s narrator thinks as she meets her recruiter for the fifth time. ‘Were I to be told there weren’t any jobs available, I’d probably just nod and quietly make my way back home. Equally, if I was asked if I was available to go and work for a construction company in Dubai, I was likely to say, quite offhand, that I was up for it.’ At the start of The New Me, Millie is 10 days into a receptionist temp role at a furniture showroom, being paid $12 an hour to stare at an unringing phone. ‘I think I’m drawn to temp work for the slight atmospheric changes,’ she declares. ‘The new offices and coworkers provide a nice illusion of variety. Like how people switch out their cats’ wet food from Chicken to Liver to Sea Bass, but in the end, it’s all just flavored anus.’ Why not take any job going when, in the end, all work sucks. Whatever, who cares. For Butler’s Millie, ‘every morning is just one more used-up day.’ She feels ‘trapped in a loop,’ deprived of purpose and unable to move forward: ‘Back at my desk I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to sit at this desk and slowly collect money.’ How can she have a sense of direction when the future already feels ‘used-up’?
Moshfegh’s narrator seems to share this vision of work as a miserable waste of life, and takes it to an absurd, yet logical conclusion. After getting fired from a receptionist role at an art gallery, she feels ‘only disgust that I’d wasted so much time on unnecessary labor when I could have been sleeping and feeling nothing.’ So, she takes exhaustion to extremes. She opts for full-time unconsciousness, a drug-induced zombie state. The suggestion of a blank, undead existence is pushed to its absurd limit in Severance, where Candace is working in the Bible division of a multinational publishing company when a contagious infection called Shen Fever hits New York. Those who catch the disease are driven to cycle through ‘the most banal activities . . . on an infinite loop. It is a fever of repetition, of routine.’ Candace proves to be immune, but, is she really that different from one of the infected? Wandering the streets, she likens herself to a ghost: ‘without anywhere to go, anything to do, I was just a specter haunting the scene.’ The company she works for is also called Spectra, suggesting that, here too, there is no such thing as an easy job, or a good job; all work exists on a deadening spectrum, a fever of repetition.
Indeed, the only protagonist that has discernible job satisfaction is Murata’s ‘Convenience Store Woman’ — and this stems from identifying so totally with her role that existence outside the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart melts away. In this contemporary gothic fairytale, instead of a zombie or ghost, Keiko is transformed into an automaton: ‘I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response’. She thinks, ‘I want to be a useful tool’ and ‘it feels like ‘morning’ itself is being loaded into me.’ Significantly, when she leaves the store she suffers a system crash, disconnecting from time and sleeping through the day: ‘Since I’d left the store, I no longer knew what time I should wake up in the morning . . . I no longer knew what standard to live by.’ Automated nothingness, or comatose nothingness? In these novels, all choice appears to be between Chicken or Sea Bass ‘flavored anus’.
The similarities between these books have not gone unnoticed. Indeed, it now seems almost impossible to discuss one without pointing to at least one other in the set. In a 2019 piece for The Nation — ostensibly a review for The New Me — Katie Bloom suggests that these ‘millennial workplace novels,’ ‘all depict young women struggling to find connection and purpose . . . all tell the stories of women who, to varying degrees, can’t set their own course: They take the strange, grim jobs offered to them, accept curdled imitations of love, and possess few dreams of their own.’ Reading these novels together, she suggests one might ‘get the sense that millennials are defined not by the downward mobility of their generation but by something internal: a mysterious dearth of will.’
In a sharply perceptive piece for The Baffler, Jess Bergman likewise focuses on the internal emptiness of these novels’ protagonists — their lifelessness. Noting that the employment of each protagonist is defined by its dullness — ‘her job is tedious: data entry, or coordinating the logistics for meaningless products, or proofreading niche trade publications with improbable names’ - she stresses that what ‘unites this group of novels most significantly . . . is affect.’ Numbed or deadened almost to the point of anaesthesia (or past the point, in the case of Moshfegh’s narcotic Sleeping Beauty), the anti-heroines of contemporary fiction are almost totally drained of desire — ‘except, of course,’ Bergman notes, ‘the desire for nothing.’ Surely then, instead of ‘workplace novels,’ this is truly a trend for ‘burnout books’.
Yet, as the title suggests, in There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, nothing is as it seems. The narrator finds herself entangled in a series of increasingly bizarre happenings — involving contraband hidden in the cases of Ashton Kutcher DVDs, disappearing businesses, and a cultish emotional support group — until she winds up tracking what ‘might be a ghost’ in the far reaches of a forest, possibly further from ‘a very uneventful job’ than ever before. Her ‘easy’ work is repeatedly disturbed, as she notices ‘things appearing that shouldn’t be there, or things that seem to have disappeared actually disappearing’ (as one of her employers mysteriously utters.) Each job becomes, well, a bit weird. ‘The weird,’ Mark Fisher suggests, ‘is a particular kind of perturbation,’ a disturbance by ‘that which does not belong; it is the irruption into this world of something from outside.’ The weird unsettles boundaries; it ‘de-naturalises all worlds by exposing their instability’. Like a virus, it alters reality, revealing it to be more complex and vulnerable than previously thought.
Certainly, the weird ruptures the fabric of all of these burnout books. Yet, most of their conceits are, clearly, exaggerated renderings of how people already live under a system of domination that, in Marx's words, ‘vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’. The emergence of ‘office apocalypse’ novels is hardly surprising in an era marked by talk of ‘zombie banks,’ and ‘zombie capitalism’. Indeed, this year perhaps more than any other has proved to many that ‘capitalism is a death cult’, and ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ But here is the problem. For, Fisher asserts this notion captures the essence of capitalist realism: the ‘widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.’ The weird elements of these novels want to function like a grand reveal, denaturalising capitalism, exposing it’s instability, and illuminating how, far from being the only realistic political-economic system, it is a deeply bizarre regime. Yet, there is still no way out. Taken together, these burnout books tend to replicate the sensations of apathy, exhaustion and futility they seek to describe. As one reviewer of The New Me notes, ‘there is no resolution for these characters, just more days at a soulless treadmill.’ Butler herself describes how the book ends with Millie ‘just in a job, she’s in another fucking job’. Severance ends with an escape of sorts, but the conditions haven’t changed. The narrator drives until her car gives up, then gets out and starts walking — like finance capitalism, like burnout syndrome, she gets to the point of breakdown, and somehow keeps stumbling on.
Stuck in a loop of perpetual crisis, this clutch of burnout books share the essential problem of what Rachel Connolly terms ‘“This Thing is Late Capitalism” essays,’ which, she notes also ‘come to conclusions that feel curiously flat,’ and end ‘on a note of knowing resignation’. Like these essays, most contemporary workplace novels seem to point out ‘capitalism is oppressive, but conclude that, though awareness of this may be widespread, our power to act on it is minimal.’ The weird elements of these novels only serve to reinforce their essential absurdism — seeing free will as a sad fiction, and the search for meaning as ultimately doomed in a meaningless and irrational universe. This leads to a vicious cycle of disempowerment. Yes, all jobs — not just ‘cool’, ‘good’, ‘easy’, or ‘bullshit’ ones — are subject to the ongoing degradations imposed by a rapacious global finance system, and, of course, individual actions won’t end capitalism. But, as Connolly states, ‘that doesn’t mean that choice does not exist.’ Moreover, while all workers experience exploitation, accepting ‘burnout’ as a pervasive atmosphere — ‘the contemporary condition’ — can work to conceal systemic insecurity.
Portraying modern labour primarily as a site of psychological rupture and distress certainly speaks to how precarious employment de-structures existence. Yet, rendering precariousness as a shared, emotional condition can also erase crucial differences in the way it manifests, and undermine the specific lived experience of economic precarity. As Katie Bloom suggests, all too often these hollow, alienated characters ‘allow middle-class readers to feel like the real victims of capitalism instead of like participants and beneficiaries.’ Work sucks, we know. But, is all work really the same? Is every choice the same as death? Is there no alternative?
Towards the end of her essay, Bergman suggests Hilary Leichter’s novel Temporary may point to ‘a new direction for the atomized young women of contemporary fiction,’ as it embraces absurdity, but still believes in the prospect of ‘something more sacred than survival.’ She suggests it is the ‘first of these novels to acknowledge solidarity as a salve against capitalism’s worst offenses.’ I would propose There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job — another ‘surreal picaresque’ — is the second. While strange disappearances and references to ghosts may give the novel a speculative sheen, the weirdness here is of a different calibre to Ma’s apocalyptic disease, or Moshfegh’s elective coma. What appears to be a weird ‘irruption into this world of something from outside,’ always transpires to have more to do with social relations than the supernatural. The difference between overseeing collagen extraction and overseeing a human ‘target’, after all, is the potential for personal connection. Of course, it is this that stops the job being ‘easy’.
In Tsumura’s novel, fatigue and futility are ameliorated by making contact with other people. And this is truly weird, as it requires crossing a threshold, letting something outside in. Towards the end it’s revealed that the career which pushed the narrator to burnout was social work — she is emotionally exhausted after literally caring too much for too long. Yet, while at the start her overriding desire is to recover through detachment and ‘doing nothing’, she finds herself repeatedly drawn to instances that require bonds of attachment. Unlike the other narrators, it seems she cannot opt out of social responsibility; there is such thing as society.
The remedy for burnout’s depletion of care, it seems, cannot be the temporary, individual relief of self-care, but must be social care. The novel closes with the call to ‘hope for the best. Hope like anything it will turn out alright.’ Maybe this feels like a benign platitude, a lack of political imagination. But, compared to the perpetually hopeless narrators of other burnout books, it also feels like a move away from lifeless disaffection. Perhaps there’s no such a thing as an easy job, but perhaps the first step in imagining alternatives is caring enough to think.