The workplace has long been a rich source of material for writers. A publishing house in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington, the bus depot in James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines, a Post Office in Charles Bukowski’s novel of the same name, or even George Orwell’s Animal Farm – they are all used to reflect the society and politics of the time. However, the everyday drudgery of modern office life is rarely portrayed in literature, perhaps for the very reason that it is seen as a place where the dramatic is often hard to find.
Christina Neuwirth understands this and subverts it brilliantly with her novella Amphibian. It is the perfect parable for our times, with themes of corporate control, individual apathy and uncertainty, and a general dissatisfaction with modern living, told with wry humour and a gentle surrealism that doesn’t intrude but only enhances the story. Not so much magical realism, more a commentary on capitalism in a modernist style. If Kafka had worked for an Edinburgh finance company this is the book he would have written.
Corporate double-speak, passive aggressive emails, and worker ennui are the order of the day in MoneyTownCashGrowth, a selection of words run together to tell you almost nothing, yet which says everything about the sort of company it is. Office worker Rose Ellis arrives late to find the floor on which she works is flooded by order of the management, apparently in an attempt to improve productivity.
Mis-management has become an expected part of the working week, but this turn of events take things to a new and unforseen level. As the flood comes up Rose and her co-workers are existing day-to-day, literally treading water in a workplace which doesn’t value who they are, and only what they do if it increases profitability.
If you have never worked in an office, or at least not recently, then Amphibian may seem pure fantasy. For those of us who have it is a satire which is not that far from documentary, or at least mockumentary. Imagine David Brent trying to convince his workers in The Office that flooding the floor was a good thing, and the majority eventually, grudgingly, accepting this as ultimately they are afraid of losing their jobs, (with a knowing look to camera from Tim) and you’ll realise that Rose’s situation is not as implausible as it first appears. Or rather, nothing should surprise you.
The novella often gets overlooked as a form of writing, but they number among my favourite books whether it’s The Old Man & The Sea, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Bonjour Tristesse, The Ballad Of The Sad Café, the aforementioned Muriel Spark’s The Driver Seat, and many, many more. With all of those mentioned their brevity is essential to their power, offering a clear and defined idea, and often to be read in one sitting. The form also suggests that the writing will be lean and clean, eschewing the need for extraneous detail or unnecessary exposition. That is certainly the case with Amphibian. Neuwirth makes her points succinctly, with wit and sense of whimsy which she shares with her central character. You have to laugh, or else you’d cry.
With Amphibian Christina Neuwirth has presented us with a tale which is utterly contemporary yet with a intrinsic understanding of human nature. It may seem an odd premise, but Amphibian has to be fantastical for Neuwirth to get her points across, to create the required drama. With a healthy sense of the absurd not quite disguising an anger at how workers are more often than not treated, Amphibian is the place where Groucho meets Karl, and both of them would approve.