I was meant to be doing all the things I used to talk about and instead I was doing nothing.
Some books tap into the malaise and misery of office culture in a way so specific to their time period that they rise above the general melee. Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland, did this in 1995. Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To the End did the same thing in 2007, right before the financial crisis. Now, post-global banking meltdown, in the era of zero-hours contracts, Alice Furse has written Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a mildly horrifying yet spot-on satire of the current state of graduate employment.
Her narrator is an unnamed twenty-four-year-old woman who lives in a grotty flat somewhere between London and Brighton (probably in one of those Surrey or Hampshire nowhere settlements like Wokingham or Redhill), with her boyfriend, known only as the Traffic Warden. The Traffic Warden’s parents live a ten-minute drive away. Our heroine has an English degree from a university which we assume is non-Russell Group, and a certain restlessness. Eventually, she’s hired for a data entry job at a company called Weblands.
It’s never entirely clear, or even just a little bit clear, what service Weblands provides. It doesn’t matter. The complex futilities of office work haven’t changed much since Kafka’s day:
It was another of my jobs to order all the stationery for the office. Mostly this consisted of reams upon reams of paper for customer service printouts, and a mind-boggling array of envelopes. There were three different sizes: DL, C5, and C4. Some had windows and some didn’t; some had to be gummed for the machine and others self-seal; some were over-printed with our address on the back. I couldn’t fathom any sort of system to it, and to make matters worse I had to renegotiate a price each time. I just knew that no matter what I asked Mary, or how long I spent poring over the catalogue, I would get the wrong ones.
Furse is particularly adept at revealing how our narrator slowly becomes more confident in the office, moving over time from shy and silent new employee to backchatting, fully-fledged colleague. Her growing confidence is partly due to the advent of Rachel, hired after her. Rachel is thirty-five and has a seven-year-old daughter, Amy, whom she adores, and whose father is both absent and irrelevant. The narrator (whom I’m going to call Effie, short for Euphemia, because the one clue we get about her name is that it’s fairly unusual) is fascinated by Rachel from the beginning: “She wouldn’t fit into Weblands at all and I liked her instantly.” Their growing friendship is one of the most charming things about a book which, on the whole, eschews charm for an almost distressingly realistic sense of stagnation.
For that is precisely the problem Furse is addressing: how, at the age of twenty-four, in a dead-end job, do you prevent your life from stagnating? Effie becomes increasingly disillusioned with the Traffic Warden’s general laziness and lack of aspirations. His characterization, incidentally, is marvellous: he leaves clothes everywhere, is almost always standing in the doorway eating something when Effie comes home, gives out a minimal number of tickets per day (sometimes as many as six, but usually closer to two), and can be driven to immediate and disconcerting rage by seemingly innocuous things. This latter fact is particularly interesting because of the way Effie reacts to it: she notes that their university housemates found his sudden tempers frightening, while she was simply amused by them. Reading this, it’s hard not to feel at least a little tinge of worry for her, especially given that one of their favourite things to do while shopping for groceries is to play a game called Wife Beater:
He grabbed my elbow and bellowed, his teeth close to my face: “Will-you-fucking-shut-up-you-stupid-bitch?” I bowed my head and just caught the expression on a woman’s face before she went off to Fruit’n’ Veg. I knew that we would be destined to see her again, in the frozen aisle, or gazing at cheese, and she would stare at us and pity me and then look away.
Effie and the Traffic Warden are, of course, sleepwalking towards disaster, but it’s not, fortunately, the kind of disaster that the Wife Beater game seems to forbode. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that she breaks up with him, about three-quarters of the way through the book. One of the most curiously depressing and yet exhilarating things about leaving university, as I have found out, is that you change suddenly as your life changes, and sometimes you find that people who were perfect for you back then aren’t perfect for you now. Furse captures the first intense miserable realization of that fact, and then the sudden weird contentment that sometimes comes as a result of being alone and accountable to no one else. Effie goes shopping alone for the first time since the breakup:
It occurred to me that if every product we bought together was a compromise, then neither of us had really ever been happy. I bought smoked salmon, pistachio nuts, garlic cheese, fresh bread, chocolate cereal. I couldn’t be sure whether I was cut adrift or free, but I felt like I was living well.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is one of the most interesting instances, too, of a book that the publishers clearly felt had to be a little bit misleading in its marketing materials. This isn’t to complain—if you can’t tell already, I loved it—but to note how difficult it is to sell aimlessness. The jacket copy proclaims, “As her days fill with low paid office work and her boyfriend abandons ambition, a young woman believes there must be an apocalypse on the horizon and hatches a dramatic plan to escape the life she picked by mistake.” This makes it sound as though our narrator joins a cult or starts to lose her mind or is plotting to run away. None of these things are true. The only time the apocalypse is mentioned is when a work colleague (known as Young Nathan) tells Effie that he’s writing a novel about their office. (So meta!) She asks him what’s going to happen in it, and he replies that he can’t decide: “Either the apocalypse…or nothing.” And the “dramatic plan to escape” is, I think, a slightly hysterical marketing professional’s description of the eventual break-up.
Either way, it’s quite funny. The novel is more than compelling enough without the threat of the Rapture. The only shame is that the people who will nod most in recognition—the workers in call centres, the students working at McDonald’s, and the hordes of graduates doing data entry—may not stumble across it. It’s published by a small press, Burning Eye, and even major debuts tend not to make an impression on people who don’t assiduously read the books news. I’ve already determined to lend it to a friend, however, and I hope the other people who have read and enjoyed it do, too. It’s a terrific, sad, hopeful novel, and tremendously timely.