Temporary working capital

The fiction of meaningful work

An illusion was abandoned before that of Kikuko Tsumura There is no such thing as easy work start. The work, once central and all-consuming for the anonymous narrator of Tsumura, a 36-year-old woman in Japan, has become obsolete – something she wishes to downplay, because, sadly, the toil cannot be avoided. The narrator at first reveals few details about how she arrived at this change. She quit her last job due to burnout, moved in with her parents, and resolved to find the job as less exciting and emotionally less trying as possible.

Halfway through the book, sitting across from her temp agency recruiter, the narrator ponders what kind of role she would really be interested in: “A job counting how many sparrows sit on telegraph cables, or how many red cars crossing a passage ”are the first examples that come to mind. She worries, however, that it would appear she was joking if she seriously suggested them. “So I kept silent, but the truth was I was half serious,” she thinks. “I wanted a job that was practically without substance, a job that was on the borderline between being a job and not. ”

The job the recruiter finds for our anonymous narrator is not far from the one she dreams of. Not quite odd jobs, they’re just weird: his first role consists entirely of watching surveillance footage of a man suspected of being in possession of stolen goods, waiting for him to open a DVD case in which the objects would be hidden. She then writes commercials for the buses, hosts a mini advice column printed on the back of cracker packs, puts up posters with PSAs, and works in a tiny hut in a vast state forest, where her only mandatory duties. are folding tickets. and quietly map landmarks on the ground.

The narrator’s goal for each of these positions is to stay detached. Liking her work or investing in it personally is not only discouraged, she believes, but “inappropriate”. Work and life, that is, love, friendship, emotions of all kinds, should be separated. This attitude, adopted from the start, separates Tsumura’s narrator from her counterparts in other contemporary novels about women working under capitalism. In books like Halle Butler’s Jillian and The new me, the protagonists cling to fantasies that they can overcome the precariousness and succeed in the American enterprise until, through a series of disappointments and failures, they are forced to face the grim reality of their situation. The narrator in Temporary, Hilary Leichter’s debut novel, continues to aspire to a permanent full-time job – “stability,” she calls – even though her temporary positions reveal the absurdity of work in principle. The protagonist of Otessa Moshfegh in My year of rest and relaxation has a revelation about the fundamental nature of jobs bullshit early on, but his response is to opt to ‘sleep and feel nothing’, the general arrangement many female characters who appear in these works.

Tsumura’s narrator may be exhausted, but she’s not numb. Instead, she’s sensitive to the funny ironies and unexpected pleasures of working life, of which it turns out there are a lot, even though she continually seeks completely meaningless work. As each temporary job turns into the strange, she lets herself be drawn into these micro dramas: throughout the national park. Small tasks snowball into complex plots. Each profession has its own autonomous ecosystem, with a governance logic that the narrator gradually discovers. That’s what jobs, good or bad, Tsumura seems to suggest: storytelling exercises. If all jobs at some point blur the categories of work and life, as our narrator has just concluded, if they are all zero – at least a little – in their own way, then the ability to cope depends on the meaning that it is granted to worldliness. . There might not be an easy job, but a good job can just be one where you believe in the story.

To the frustration of the narrator, his works prove to be carrying more meaning than she wishes. What begins as a job of writing anecdotes on the back of packages of crackers turns into a job of distributing advice and “useful stuff,” which ends up saving a stranger’s life. The narrator discovers that she can also help her colleagues with their daily problems. She helps one fix a beloved plate that has been smashed, another find what to cook for dinner, and a third who asks her to write a tip on what to do if the nose pads of your glasses keep falling off. During her last temporary placement, in the forest, she finds a man who has been reported missing by the police and explains to him why he ran away with his life. He confides in her: He felt overwhelmed by the work.

Tension in There is no such thing as easy work arose out of the narrator’s complete certainty about what she expects from a job – a boring nothingness, for a paycheck – and her apparent inability to remain selfless, emotionally distant. There comes a point in every job where she admits to appreciating some aspect of her job, as if she is violating her own conscience. “I was rationally aware that it was not a good idea to get too emotionally involved in what I was doing, but it was also hard to stop myself from deriving satisfaction from it,” she recalls. his editorial work. “To be honest, I was happy when people enjoyed my job, and it made me want to try harder. While devising a plan to beat a competing PSA display company, she worries about “showing an unnecessary degree of enthusiasm.” But she can’t help it: “It was quite fun, this job.” Even when not having fun, the narrator finds comfort in being given a simple task that she can competently accomplish. “I felt a simple gratitude wash over me for having a task to occupy my time,” she says of the experience of loading a box onto a cart. (It helps that her bosses treat her with basic dignity and respect throughout, the condition of enjoying what, in another setting, could easily be experienced as a chore.)

The book, divided into separate sections for each job, oscillates between these two positions: as soon as the narrator starts having fun, she is overwhelmed by some of the familiar hardships of the job. In her first temporary job, she is frustrated that the man she watches over, an author who works from home, seems to have more freedom than she does. She covets her household items – a sparkling magnetic knife block, a drying rack with dozens of tiny clips for hanging clothes – but can’t order them online because the company doesn’t allow her to receive personal parcels at the store. office, and their hours make it difficult to sign for them at home. When she tries to buy the sausages she sees the man eating after he leaves, she arrives at the supermarket to find that they are used up during her working day. Later, struggling to find factual ideas for her cracker pack job, the narrator indulges in self-loathing, blaming herself for not producing at the rate required of her.

TWhile the book is peppered with characters struggling with burnout, unbalanced work-life balances, and grueling emotional labor, these kinds of lamentations aren’t as common as in other contemporary office novels, which tend to wallow in the abject sadness of the work itself. The protagonists of these books are surrounded by fake colleagues and depressing workspaces, and they’re usually filled with such self-loathing that true relationships with other people seem impossible – even when it comes to best friends and boyfriends, they are almost universally indifferent. The Tsumura narrator exhibits none of these characteristics: she is an open and sympathetic observer of her own life and that of her colleagues.

In another book, his heartfelt reflections on the true spirit of working life could be read as a little tapping, but in There is no such thing as easy work, they move quietly. “For no reason that I understood correctly, I felt that a hole had opened in my heart,” the narrator tells us when she finds herself again looking for a new temporary placement. “If being busy kept me from having to look at this hole, I could probably handle any type of job.” The simplicity of an axiom like this – a recognition that in some cases all-consuming work can be a welcome distraction from other woes – is striking against the subtly surreal landscape Tsumura creates. The combination of tone and setting makes these lessons more original and, in a way, more real. That is to say: I welcomed the serious.

This may not be a precise political position to take in order to sell your work: Could the job be… good? Our narrator’s answer to this question almost deflates the book because it is so obvious. And, frankly, because it’s also unsatisfying after the whimsical and subtly weird episodes that precede it. After revealing that she was working as a medical social worker when she was exhausted, the narrator considers that after trying a handful of different temporary positions, it might be best to return to her field. In a particularly serious reflection, she thinks, “I had no way of knowing what pitfalls might lie in store for me, but what I had discovered while doing five jobs in such a short time was this: it was the same thing. . of all.”

It’s almost a tired trope now that the protagonists grope their way towards an epiphany that usually comes to the climax of the plot. Since our narrator reaches hers before we even meet her – the work sucks, basically – the events of the book seem to be playing out in reverse. After moving from job to job, she’s back where she started. Of course, this is another well-established convention: the hero sets out in search of love, clarity, spiritual fulfillment, etc., and realizes that what he was looking for was at home since the beginning. start. What is most convincing about There is no such thing as easy work is what goes in between, the way Tsumura’s narrator tries to separate work from life and how life continues to creep in. Because isn’t it generally the other way around?


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