By Ed Park
Random House, 241 pp., $13
Need a reason to quit your day job? Read Personal Days, Ed Park's flawed but grimly funny, Kafkaesque deconstruction of the 21st-century workplace, where the employees of a nameless company perform brainless tasks for malevolent supervisors, all in hope of keeping jobs that no one in their right mind would want to have. Park is a co-founder of The Believer and a former books editor of the Voice. Personal Days, his first novel, reads like an unholy cross between The Office and The Prisoner. What starts as an amusing send-up of life in a high-rise labyrinth of cubicles grows increasingly surreal and ominous. Loyalties shift, along with erotic tensions, in a paranoid office pool consisting of Jill, Pru, Jonah, Laars, the original Jack, Jack II, Lizzie, Crease, Jenny, and the Unnameable, who are all (mostly) united in their hatred and fear of their overlords. These include the Sprout; the "aggressively hypnotic" Maxine; the Sprout's mysterious supervisor, known only as K; and the company's newest employee, a creepy Brit nicknamed Grime. Park brilliantly captures the noxious, free-floating cloud of in-jokes, ennui, and socially incestuous gossip that permeates this corporate netherworld, a place where workers construct "layoff narratives" to give meaning to their truncated careers. In the process, he gets off some good lines, such as "She used fonts we'd never even seen, fonts so powerful most of our computers crashed." The loathsome Grime's documents read like "the second half of Flowers for Algernon." After she's fired, Jill's notebook is found by her former co-workers, a work immediately dubbed The Jilliad; it consists solely of inane power-speak mantras cribbed from books with titles like Are We Having Money Yet and Ernie and Bert in the Boardroom. The novel culminates in a 42-page e-mail written in an elevator shaft by someone who may be the sole survivor of a corporate cataclysm. Or not. Park's prose is sharp and often amusing, but the story lacks narrative drive and may feel overly familiar to anyone who's watched The Office or read Douglas Coupland's Microserfs. In the end, Personal Days reads too much like an artifact of the very subculture it sends up.