8 Novels About How Work Seeps Into Our Personal Lives

Kieran Goddard recommends books on how labor shapes, reshapes, and ultimately misshapes our inner emotional world

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I can’t be the only one who, when recalling the major contours of my life, ends up also automatically recalling the type of work I was doing at the time. After all, no matter what else might have been happening during a given period—heartbreak, grief, spiritual crises—it is likely that I was still spending the majority of my waking hours working. At a certain point then, it becomes both impossible and pointless to try to disentangle our relationship to work from our wider existence as social, erotic and political subjects. For better or worse, it is hard to illuminate the true texture of a life without also accounting for the type of work we do, and under what conditions of duress of freedom we undertake it. 

Considering this, alongside the more fundamental observation that most people spend the bulk of their waking life at work, exchanging their time, their health and their bodies for enough money to meet life’s necessities, like food, shelter, warmth and a modicum of social participation, it’s fair to say that, until recently, the quotidian details of labor have been curiously absent from most contemporary literature. There are lots of reasons why that might be the case. The socio-economic positions of those producing the majority of art, perhaps. The fact that, overall, the novel remains a primarily bourgeois form.  Or maybe just the fact that most jobs are boring enough to do, let alone to read about. Thankfully, things seem to be changing. 

My debut novel Hourglass, although primarily a love story, tries to touch on contemporary labor in a way that acknowledges its continued centrality to the lives of most people. Not just in terms of how we spend our days, but also in terms of how the wage-labor mechanism shapes, reshapes, and ultimately misshapes our social, psychological, sexual and spiritual makeup.  And while Hourglass may be slightly unusual for a novel, in that it addresses the issue of work in a directly ideologically manner; it is certainly not alone in highlighting the many ways in which work and the workplace directly influence our inner and emotional worlds. In fact, I have been struck by how many recent novels deal with these topics in powerful and evocative ways. These are eight of the best:

The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish

Lish’s second novel, following the award-winning Preparation for the Next Life, The War For Gloria is a fierce reckoning with masculinity and loss. It follows a teenage boy, Corey as he cares for his terminally ill mother. In the process, Corey bounces between a raft of cash-in-hand manual labour jobs, initially itinerant and unreliable, necessity sees Corey’s attitude to work shift and morph as the novel progresses. Absent a stable father figure, Corey begins to seek guidance from the older men on the building site, and we also begin to see his dexterity as a laborer increase in lockstep with the physical confidence he attains via martial arts training. Corey’s body temporarily flourishes under the yoke of manual work, even as his own mother’s ebbs away, heartbreakingly shunned and humiliated by the world of employment now illness has rendered her economically unviable.  

Bad Girls by Camila Villada, translated by Kit Maude

Villada’s novel is a stark, but often poetic, portrait of a chosen family of “travesti” sex workers. Led by matriarch Auntie Encarna, the group discover an abandoned child that they decide to collectively care for and raise, generating unwanted attention from locals in the process. What is perhaps most striking about this book is the ways in which it sits broadly apart from Eurocentric debates about gender and also sex work. Instead, we see something less theoretical and more elemental; the vital role of interpersonal solidarity in the face of a hostile and hypocritical world, and the complex economic and emotional realities of existing in the grey areas of a broken system. 

little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Lazily described by many reviewers as “experimental,” this does a disservice to the emotional clarity and intellectual directness of Watson’s debut. The novel uses a fragmented system of dual narration to explore both the deadening rhythms of contemporary office life and the tumbling, occluded recollections surrounding a sexual assault. The novel is particularly astute in capturing the highly codified emptiness that saturates so many bullshit jobs, and then contrasting it with the halting, elliptical, digressive cadences that characterize the inner world of the people who spend their lives doing them. 

Unfinished Business by Michael Bracewell

A quiet, meditative mood-piece, Unfinished Business tells the story of Martin, a once semi-glamorous man about town, whose life has gently dwindled to a state of repetitive, isolated mundanity. There is something dream-like in how we learn about Martin’s journey from fashionable flaneur to middle-aged office worker, trapped in a hamster wheel of commuting and solo dining in soulless restaurants. Martin is a man out of time, and no more so than in the case of his job. The reader gets the sense that the world has passed Martin by, and that he no longer understands precisely what his job is, let alone how to do it well. There is a grim inevitability to the way in which he is ultimately deemed to no longer be of sufficient use nor sufficient ornament. 

In the Seeing Hands of Others by Nat Ogle

A structurally innovative novel, Ogle’s debut is constructed from a patchwork of documents, blogs, character references, voicemails and internet comments. Ostensibly a book dealing with a life-altering act of sexual violence and the many ways in which it is metabolized by both the victim and the perpetrator, it is also a novel that grapples with the societal importance of care work. Protagonist Corina is a nurse, and is also caring for her ailing mother. It is in the moments where Ogle blurs the boundaries between caring as a professional duty, regulated and remunerated, and caring as an impulsive human instinct that we see how truly promising a writer he is. 

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

A slim, elegiac novel, Last Night at the Lobster depicts the final night before a Connecticut lobster restaurant closes its doors for good. It’s very much a “not with a bang, with a whimper” situation; snow means the final shift is slow to the point of being almost eerie, and the majority of the soon to be unemployed staff don’t bother to show up. O’Nan is particularly skilled at capturing the heaviness and monotony of service work, how often workers are treated poorly by both the corporate overlords they never see and the nightmare customers that they very much do. 

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk

This early novel of Cusk’s is a perfect satire of the ways people aim to change themselves simply by changing their profession. It follows Stella Benson, a woman in her late twenties who decides to leave behind city life and move to a quaint British village to take up a position as an au pair and carer for the disabled son of a wealthy family. Cusk is a master at capturing and skewering the pretentions of class that too often end up shaping the power relations within the workplace. And the fact that in this instance the workplace happens to be a family home provides particularly rich and morally ambiguous source material. 

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson

It’s half a century old, but the penultimate novel by much neglected British avant-garde genius B.S. Johnson remains remarkably prescient. Johnson is razor sharp on the ways in which the logic of the workplace can seep into our everyday lives, warping and distorting it in the process. Marly is a simple soul, he likes women and money, but after learning the art of double-entry bookkeeping (a two-sided method in which every entry requires a corresponding opposite entry to a different account), he decides to apply the methodology to his own life. The results, while occasionally grimly comic, are predictably destructive. A scathing satire on the hyperrationality of capitalism’s means and the ways in which they simultaneously occlude and justify any number of violent ends. 

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