The corporate downsizing portrayed in Ed Park's first novel, Personal Days, is happening not with a bang, but with a whimper: Not merely the last to know when they've been bought and sold, the employees of this unnamed office, whose specific work is never made clear, are subjected to a parade of new employees whose jobs are never specified, and whose authority seems limitless. At the Brooklyn Book Festival last year, Park took pains to distance his fictional creation from the site of his last layoff, The Village Voice in New York City, but the blandness of the office in question lends itself to allegory rather than to roman à clef—a little Douglas Coupland, a little George Orwell.
The unnamed narrator and his coworkers toil at nothing but thrive on speculation over who will be fired next; each meeting, desk reassignment, and compliment is given an ominous weight. (After a string of firings of people whose names start with J, the office's Ls begin to fret.) As part of their daily routines, they all ward off the cloud of unemployment in their own ways, from fixating on a beautiful woman from another floor to relying on a "Mexican distress frog" whose ridged back can be played like a marimba. United in their suspicion of unfamiliar faces in the office, they make vain promises to their laid-off coworkers while clinging to their rituals of e-mail and errands, marking time by reformatting their résumés or copying passages from office-politics manuals.
Like last year's critically acclaimed office novel Then We Came To The End, the work getting done (or really, not getting done) in Personal Days means nothing compared to the fragile alliances formed among the passengers on the sinking ship. But while Came To The End plumbs the depths of corporate uselessness just a little too long, Park's novel feels curiously abrupt in its final third, in spite of a James Joyce-esque flourish which purports to explain, in one character's stream-of-consciousness communiqué, the baffling efforts of management and the resolution toward which the corporate strategy was batting its pawnlike workers. The office obsession with the minutiae of their supervisors, from one's cheery inability to spell to another's routine, foreboding disappearances, is hilarious but curiously immune to the undercurrent of despair: The death of the unnamed company is bleak precisely because its hallmarks are so recognizable, as those pawns struggle to push themselves forward without becoming targets.