The Cambridge dictionary defines work as an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical energy to do, usually for money. Physics defines work as moving a force over a given distance which rings true for all us worker bees who daily move forces over vast distances in a sisyphean effort to make a living. Jerome K Jerome stated: “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” Honoré de Balzac wrote that all happiness depends on courage and work.The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said that “work is the only practical consolation for having been born’’.
Douglas Coupland has declared the nine to five as barbaric and thinks that one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we now view child labour in the 19th century. He has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace and his literary works such as Generation X, JPod and Microserfs all revolve around smart and creative young people struggling with the demands of the corporate world.
The world of work is tainted by being perceived as being dull and dreary and to depict it using prose can prove a project too stultifying for a novelist to dedicate a few years to its depiction. Considering the ubiquity of the work experience in our lives, novels that focus on the working life do not crowd the shelves of bookshops. When a novelist can explore heightened worlds innervated with psychological tension the mundane terrain of the water cooler and a poor performance appraisal can seem a turgid option.When there’s war, heartbreak, murder, fictitious future worlds, class struggle, familial discord and clever plots aplenty why would any fiction writer preoccupy himself with the nine to five?
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, heads east to learn the bond business but, instead of office politics, the novel pulsates with high drama and extravagant parties. The odd sentence appears in the novel to confirm that Nick has a job: “Up in the city, I tried for a while to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock, then I fell asleep in my swivel chair.”
Yuval Noah Harari the author of Sapiens recently predicted that most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. He writes that as artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. If a world of post-work awaits us future generations can learn about the nine to five through works of fiction which will stand as a testament to the world of work. Reading most contemporary fiction one might assume that real life was something that went on outside of working hours. The following novels put work firmly where, in the majority of people’s lives it belongs – in the middle.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
All jobs entail tedium and toil but the depiction of the work environment in a regional tax-processing centre on the outskirts of Peoria, Illinois, takes brain-crushing boredom to a new level of pain. One of the characters’ remarks that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is”. There is a stunning passage about men on a work break, standing around talking about nothing in particular, but it nails the condition of bleak office-life with definitive accuracy.Wallace focuses on an assortment of misfits, eccentrics and outsiders who come to work at the I.R.S. and work as accountants, pushing paper and numbers in a generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation”.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Ever since Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000 there has been a vogue for books that take us behind the scenes into the intoxicating world of restaurant work. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel is a poetic coming-of-age story about a young woman, Tess’s, experience working as a waitress in a Union Square Cafe, negotiating both New York and a new world of tastes and desires. Her descriptions of the aftermath of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle are rendered with poetic dazzle.Unwelcome daybreak with its ensuing horror is “a dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows”, and “sunrise came like an undisclosed verdict”. Danler’s description of the panic of the unannounced health department inspection will resonate will all workers who have lived through similar situations. The narrator distills from her experience of her working life some philosophical truths including that “ a certain connoisseurship of taste,a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet”.
Personal Days by Ed Parks
When Ed Parks was let go after New Times Media took over The Village Voicehe wrote this novel channelling the pre-layoff atmosphere of dread and anxiety into witty prose. Personal Days unfolds in three parts: Can’t Undo, Replace All and Revert to Saved, all familiar from Microsoft Word. He employs the language of computer software to narrate the happenings in the archipelagos of cubicle clusters while lambasting the lingo of corporate speak. Parks has said that this is “a layoff narrative” for our times.
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Daniel Underwood the narrator of this novel is a 26-year-old aspiring code writer, an affable insomniac who tells the story through his online journal Daniel@microsoft.com. Daniel and his fellow “microserfs” lead lives of frantic tedium tethered to their computer screens for 15 hour days, living on junk food and obsessing about Bill Gates. The novel makes a prescient point that “machines really are our subconscious” in this entertaining depiction of life as a computer techie in the early days of the technological revolution.
London and the South-East by David Szalay
Thoreau’s observation that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation finds embodiment in the character of Paul Rainey, the anti-hero of this sharply written satire on the modern workplace. He is an ad salesman with a company engaged in the increasingly profitless business of selling advertising space in trade magazines whose only subscribers are the advertisers themselves. The novel’s evocations of the day-to-day textures of the workplace, the routines, rivalries, allegiances, resentment and camaraderie, the lunch hours in the pub, the Monday morning postmortems of weekends. Paul’s dissatisfaction with his life lived in a sapping fog of alcohol and automation is brilliantly conveyed by Szalay: “Lying in his tepid bed, wheezing shallowly, eyes shut, ticker fluttering, his head a tightening knot of pain, he is once more sentient of his self, and his situation.” This novel is compulsively readable; Szalay’s prose and darkly comic tone make this a classic of the genre.
50 Jobs Worse Than Yours by Justin Racz Satirist
Justin Racz has spanned the globe to find 50 jobs that can only instil gratitude in any worker complaining about the difficulty of his job.This mini-book with 50 jobs and 50 photos showcases occupations from silly to gross, tedious to terrifying and may serve to dispel all work woes and take the blue out of Mondays, at least until it rolls around again.
No Time For Work by George Ryan
In the humorous tradition of Myles na gGopaleen, Ryan’s comic novel’s narrator is a newly qualified teacher who along with his friend Cecil Chuckleworth do all in their power to avoid work.They manage to outwit headmasters, school inspectors, parish priests and publicans with their escapades in an effort to live the dream, getting paid for sipping porter. The misadventures and comic capers will raise a smile with any reader who has navigated the Irish education system; Ryan writes that “long ago I discovered that teaching is an easy way of earning a living provided that one does not make the mistake of actually teaching.”
Sleep, or the lack of it, is another modern malaise. The purpose, function and drive to sleep has eluded science for millennia; to unravel its mysteries and deliver its age-old secrets has become the holy grail of modern neuroscience and research. Michael Rosbach, one of three American biologists awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the master genes controlling the body’s circadian rhythms, has declared that all of western society is chronically sleep-deprived.
Though feted as a malady of the technology era, insomnia has always been the unwanted bed fellow of modern man. Some of the most famous actors, artists and political leaders have been unable to court the Sandman, and tales of their insomnia are legendary .Vladimir Nobokov, a famous insomniac, called sleepers “ the most moronic fraternity in the world” and felt that the wrench of parting with consciousness almost unbearable. He wanted always to be an eye awake, a seer in a sleeping world, a solitary watcher among the unconscious.
Vincent Van Gogh was said to have been a sufferer and used to douse his mattress and pillow in camphor, a close relative of turpentine, which scholars believe may have caused the brain damage which contributed to his suicide. Groucho Marx’s extreme insomnia led to him reportedly calling strangers on the phone in the small hours to insult them and wrote: “What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?” According to Marx the correct answer is someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.
The modern-day equivalent is the insomniacal tribe of online social media users, who often commune and direct message in the small hours, propelled by the excitement that they are not alone. As an often-reluctant member of this wide-awake club, I have taken comfort in Leonard Cohen’s line that the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the waking world.
Medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn
Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, writes about the pattern where medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn. The wakeful hours were spent in prayer, visits to neighbours or engaged in nocturnal shenanigans. He argues that the modern “precious eight hours’ sleep” is a product of the industrial age and the advent of artificial light and that medieval sleepers got closer to nature’s intention than we do. As well as negotiating the tribulations of middle age it appears that my sleeping pattern is medieval, a nightly throw-back to the bi-modal sleep pattern of my ancestors.
Tallulah Bankhead, the early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on a solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to hold her hand until she nodded off
Tallulah Bankhead, the famous early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on the solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to sit with her and hold her hand until she nodded off. A less expensive and modern alternative is to try to nod off to the gravelly tones of Drew Akerman, aka Dearest Scooter, the 42-year-old creator and host of the popular Sleep With Me podcast. This is downloaded about 1.3million times each month, which gives some measure of the need for stories that succeed in boring the listener to sleep. Scooter sometimes calls his show “the podcast the sheep listen to when they get tired of counting themselves”. In Greek myth, Hermes used his inimitable wit to tell stories so long-winded and labyrinthine that they lulled the many-eyed monster Argus to sleep.
Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger
Anna Akhmatova wrote that insomnia is when both sides of the pillow feel hot. The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet about sleeplessness called I wake and feel the fell of dark, when he lived in Ireland in the 1880s. In its depiction of a dark night of the soul, it is unparalleled in English literature. Another poet who distils the essence of the sleepless night is Philip Larkin. He often stayed up all night with his martinis and jazz LPs, and in the poem Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger. “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light. Till then I see what’s always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…”
Aristotle regarded sleep as a between world, “being as it were a borderland between living and not-living”, sleep being nearer to death than waking, or as Macduff calls it in Macbeth, “death’s counterfeit.”
As a seasoned insomniac, I have spent many years in search for a panacea from the gods, a miracle that would restore me to dream like the Waltons, fast asleep after lights out, cocooned in soporific dreamland far from the madding world. I have tried tinctures, tonics, flower remedies, herbs, homeopathy and acupuncture. I have downloaded apps, subscribed to YouTube channels, chanted and exhaled, twisted and turned and made Faustian pacts for nocturnal oblivion. I have spent vast sums on goose-down pillows and frette linen sheets as Spotify filled the bedroom with soundtracks of rainforests and jungles. The screeching cockatoos and monsoon rains’ aural ministrations have often scared me senseless and led to lights on in wonderland and paranoid checking under the bed for any stray jungle creature.
I have trawled the internet for moon juice and night dusts made by hippies in California, whose contents promised to deliver a nightcap that would lull me to sleep and let me slip slide away into a deep, sound slumber. A cornucopia of soporifics, including cherry juice, magnesium, B6, calcium and chamomile have left me still staring at the ceiling. As a great believer in bibliotherapy, I recently set myself a challenge to read my way through some of the recent publications concerned with the search for an enlightening sleep.
Wide Awake: What I Learned About Sleep from Doctors, Drug Companies, Dream Experts, and a Reindeer Herder in the Arctic Circle, By Patricia Morrisroe
This memoir is a must-read for fellow insomniacs. As a fourth generation sufferer of the plight, Morrisroe approaches the topic with the zeal of a researcher – always armed with her fabulous wit, which percolates the book and gives great light to the dark subject. Her insomnia is personified for her as John Malkovich in the tole of Valmont, the sadistic French aristocrat of Dangerous Liaisons. She realises that sleep, in its various dysfunctions, can be one of the most dangerous liasons of all, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer.
Morrisroe’s book is a personal narrative of her search for that which eludes her, the perfect night’s sleep. On this journey to unmask her torturer, she meets drug researchers and dispensers, mystics and cowboys, psychotherapists and savants, and unravels the notions about sleep that are often founded on fantasy, mythology and marketing. She illuminates the murky world of smart drugs like Provigil, whose maker Cephalon paid a huge fine for allegedly marketing the drug as a wake promoter instead of its FDA approved use for excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy.
She also interviews an anthropologist, who says that in many traditional, non-Western cultures people sleep on light mats, in groups, around a fire and drift in and out of slumber instead of our “lie down and die” model. Sometimes they get up and dance for a while, which is very reminiscent of student life, but perhaps not compatible with a life based on a nine to five. Her description of a restful apartment’s ruination by the arrival of noisy upstairs neighbours, whose children proceeded to stampede nightly at 3am across her ceiling will strike a chord with many of us who’ve endured similar nocturnal nuisance.
Until she found her dream home she lived in a variety of New York apartments; one had such a flimsy common wall that she could hear her neighbour, an elderly Irishman, praying nightly for the Pope and President Reagan. The acoustics allowed her to hear his tonail-clipping, “the nails clattering over the hardwood floor like reindeer hooves.”
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams , By Matthew Walker
Matthew Walker is a renowned neuroscientist and sleep expert who explores 20 years of sleep research in an attempt to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. This book is divided into four parts: the first two are concerned with the mechanics and benefits of sleep, the last two with how and why we dream as well as a new vision for sleep in the 21st century. As a bedside read, it can be dipped into according to one’s curiosity about sleep and the style is accessible, with the author able to demystify complex neurological phenomena.
The first chapter sets the tone, with Walker announcing the sobering fact that “routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer” as well as contributing to your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke and heart failure. Walker explains that sleep remains one of the last of the great biological mysteries. Our sleep patterns are cued by light and its absence, with photoreceptors at the back of the eyes picking up light and sending electrical signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in your brain. This is the master timekeeper, which regulates and synchronises body temperature and blood pressure, making sure that they all operate on the same cycle, known as circadian rhythm.
In an ideal world, without the blue light of digital devices discombobulating the clockwork, when darkness falls our pineal gland produces melatonin which induces sleep. During daylight hours, melatonin production is reduced to encourage wakefulness. Walker is particularly informative about our genetic propensity to be either an owl or a lark and society’s bias towards larks in work-scheduling. This causes owls to burn candles at both ends to fit into the work model, which exacts a huge toll on health and happiness. Despite some of the findings making this night owl a little uneasy, it’s a triumph in its field, where findings have huge implications for health and work life in modern society.
Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, By Lisa Russ Spaar (Editor)
Rudyard Kipling wrote that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind. This is a beautiful anthology, with poetic greats like Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, Rimbaud and Sappho, Shakespeare and Shelley representing the best of the Western canon, alongside poets from Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Romania and other far-flung corners of the world to show the universality of sleeplessness and what it means to be acquainted with the night.
A restless night of tossing and turning can become, in the hands of Hopkins or Sappho, a visionary and artistic experience that can lead to epiphany or confrontation with existential crisis. The anthology is divided into three parts; Solititude, Vigil and Anguish and Longing and Epiphany and Vision. Insomniac by Sylvia Plath is a triumph of all of these odes to insomnia where Plath summons a nightscape of terror inspired by her own bouts of excruciating sleeplessness. Plath describes the insomniac’s pillow as being a desert – arid and bereft from the oasis of sleep. The insomniac is immune to the sleeping tablets “those sugary planets whose influence won for him/ a life baptized in no-life for a while” and their “poppy-sleepy colors do him no good”
The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole –
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.
Pushkin’s poem loses none of its powerful evocation of a sleepless night in its translation from the Russian in its depiction of the sleepless author listening to the external ticking of the clock as well as the internal whispers of a reproachful conscience.
Lines Written at Night During Insomnia by Alexander Pushkin (Translated by DM Thomas)
I can’t sleep; no light burns;
All round, darkness, irksome sleep.
Only the monotonous
Ticking of the clock,
The old wives chatter of fate,
Trembling of the sleeping night,
Mouse-like scurrying of life…
Why do you disturb me?
What do you mean tedious whispers?
Is it the day I have wasted
Reproaching me or murmuring?
What do you want from me?
Are you calling me or prophesying?
I want to understand you,
I seek a meaning in you.
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time , By Arianna Huffington
The media mogul Arianna Huffington’s book is a call not to lean in but to lie down and sleep as an aid to productivity and life enhancement. Arianna practices what she preaches and sleeps on a bed dressed with her organic cotton sheet range from her Huffington collection and her pillows stuffed with soporific hops and barley. She relegates her phone and electronic devices to the foyer outside the bedroom and engages in a half-hour nightly transition to sleep that includes gratitude journaling, bathing in Epsom salts by candlelight, rituals which help her to greet sleep with respect. Huffington believes that the miracle of sleep allows us to see the world with a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored. This is a must-read for all aspiring entrepreneurs as this newly anointed sleep evangelist believes that a sleep revolution will allow us to problem solve and dream a new future.
Sleep in Early Modern England, By Sasha Handley
Handley’s book is an illuminating cultural history of sleep, drawing on a rich host of archival sources, referencing Samuel Pepys and the Romantics in an effort to enrich our knowledge of sleep and its roles in earlier societies. The physician and clergyman Thomas Cogan in his The Haven of Health written in the late 1500s presaged this year’s Nobel thesis when he stated “the benefit of sleepe, or the necessity rather needeth no proofe, for that without it no living creature may long endure, according to that saying of the Poet Ovid.”
Ann Lamott wrote that “you own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Below I’ve picked three memoirs that I’ve enjoyed over the past month and will follow with my pick of fiction and non-fiction over the next week.
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford ( Bloomsbury)
For any Ford fan this is a must read as the Pulitzer Prize winner writes with affection and some humour about his parents Parker Ford and Edna Akin. The memoir was originally written as two essays written decades apart and in their fusion creates one of the most extraordinary depictions of loss in literature. Ford writes first about his father, Parker, a traveling salesman who died in Ford’s arms in 1960 when Ford was 16. He wrote the piece about Edna, his feisty, independent mother shortly after her death in 1981. In the author’s note at the beginning of the memoir Ford acknowledges that writing the two memoirs thirty years apart he has permitted some inconsistencies persist between the two timelines and has allowed himself the lenience to retell certain events.This is a subtle and beautiful testament to devotion and a writer repaying parental love with his exacting prose and ability to animate his parent’s lives. In the afterword to the memoir Ford writes that ” the fact that lives and deaths often go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task” and that ” the chore for the memoir writer is to compose a shape and an economy that gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic, coherence to the many unequal things any life contains.”I had the privilege to hear Richard Ford read from this memoir at Listowel Writer’s Week last month, his voice suffused with emotion and deep south charm inducing a trance like state in the audience where we confronted some of life’s beautiful but painful truths.
Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler published by Canongate.
South African novelist Sheila Kohler has been haunted by the death of her sister, Maxine, who died a violent death on a spring night at the hands of her abusive husband. This memoir is the author’s attempt to unravel the truth of what happened and sift through the sands of memory to recapture the privilege of their childhood in 1950’s South Africa, a society where colonial gentility co-existed with violence and privilege. This searing illumination of sisterhood starts in 1979 when Kohler hears the news that her brother-in-law, a protege of heart surgeon Christian Barnard, drove off a deserted road and into a lamp-post causing the death of his wife Maxine. When Kohler sees her sister’s face in the morgue she feels guilty about not saving her from a husband they knew to be unspeakably cruel. She soul searches through this memoir and confronts the dark questions that her sister’s death bring to the surface including her own passivity which may have been exacerbated by the misogyny of 1950’s South Africa. This memoir is written in the present tense which reminds us that Kohler’s sister is forever with us and in her stark and delicate prose she captures the sensuous South African childhood of “swimming in the big pool, picking armfuls of bright flowers, gathering oranges and lemons” as well as the heart of darkness that destroyed this paradise.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
This memoir by New Yorker writer Ariel Levy confronts the notion of having it all. She was riding high in 2012, successful at her chosen career, legally married to a woman and pregnant with her first child. ” Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is the heart -breaking essay that Levy wrote about the miscarriage that happened in a hotel room in Mongolia where she had flown to do a report on the country’s mining boom.Her memoir picks up where the essay leaves off and explores the aftermath of the miscarriage where her marriage fell apart and Levy felt that the Universe had delivered her a karmic blow for dreaming that she could live a life of her choosing. Of her generation, Ms. Levy writes: ” Sometimes our parents were dazzled by the sense of possibility they’s bestowed on us. Other times, they were aghast to recognise their own entitlement, staring back at them magnified in the mirror of their offspring.” This memoir confronts taboos and life-shattering events in self-lacerating detail and ends with a Austenesque happy ending though in typical Levy style she has declared that this is not an ending as she is not dead.