quinta-feira, 6 de junho de 2013
And Other Stories
By Daniel Orozco
162 pp. Faber & Faber. $23.
The stories in Daniel Orozco’s debut collection convey a sense of workplace alienation that would make Karl Marx cringe. The opening lines of “Orientation,” the first story, place us squarely under the fluorescent lights of comically absurd employment: “Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual.”
The economy is still struggling, but are average jobs themselves as unbearable as culture in my lifetime has made them out to be? From Don DeLillo to George Saunders to Joshua Ferris, it’s a sign of literary authenticity to view office life as a fate somewhere below that of a 9-year-old coal miner during the Industrial Revolution. The apotheosis of this trend may be David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published novel, “The Pale King,” which revolves around an I.R.S. tax-processing center and had critics squinting to see what he might have been trying to tell us about the transcendentally stultifying force that is work. One doesn’t have to argue that cubicles offer a thrill a minute to find something suspicious about this lock-step view of them. Until there’s a bold new take on employment in fiction, work in the genre succeeds on the strength of its prose and its avoidance of potential pitfalls.
The bridge painters, warehouse crews and paralegal assistants in Orozco’s stories have no clear way to control their destinies at work, and life piles on with a series of banal indignities on the clock and pointed crises off it. They witness suicides, murders and mass layoffs. One temp fields calls from the desperately unemployed, then moves to a job helping to plan the demise of an entire department. Her agency eventually rewards her with the Orwellian promise of “permanent temporary employment.” Several characters live with demeaning monikers. A bridge worker much younger than his colleagues is called Baby; a man who’s worked at a warehouse for 10 years still answers to New Guy; and the former Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza, living in exile in Paraguay, recalls the less-than-awestruck treatment he was afforded: “In history he is referred to as Tacho II — ‘Tacho Dos’ — to distinguish him from his father, the previous presidente. The domestic press used to call him El Tachito, a diminutive that implied an unfavorable comparison.” Even Orozco’s dictators are powerless.
The nine highly polished stories in this slim volume have all previously appeared in literary journals, beginning in the mid-1990s, and it was a brave choice to title the collection after “Orientation” and to lead with it. Seventeen years after it was first published in The Seattle Review, the story’s sentences retain their snap, but anyone reading it now — 15 years after the hysterical workplace simulacra of Saunders’s “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and 10 years after Ricky Gervais’s comedy series “The Office” — is likely to find its setting and tone shopworn.
Still, unlike Wallace in his short story “Mister Squishy,” for example, brutalizing us with the surplus acronyms in a marketeer’s brain, Orozco allows his readers to breathe even as his characters suffocate. The stories demonstrate less interest in dystopia than in the real world, and offer many accessible pleasures that cut their taste of ennui and desperation. Also, though his concerns — corporate enervation and jittery social isolation, among them — are postmodern, he’s refreshingly allergic to formal gimmickry. His one foray into conspicuous innovation, “Officers Weep,” is a treat. Written in the clipped, clinical form of a police blotter (“Public disturbance. Rowdy juveniles on interurban bus. Suspects flee before officers arrive”), the story charts the growing infatuation between two patrol partners (“Crowd control progresses smoothly. Officer [Shield #325] musses hair clobbering balky demonstrator. A scrawny little hank slips loose, nestles against her right cheek, framing the side of her face like an open parenthesis”).
The cops are among the happiest folks here (they’re falling in love, for one thing, and seem to enjoy having at those demonstrators for another), but even their story ends with an ominous cliffhanger. For most, work’s toxic fumes trail into their personal lives, triggering everything from crippling shyness to aggressively antisocial behavior. In a nod to E. M. Forster, one story is titled “Only Connect,” but the book is stuffed with bunglings of potential kinship.
The Somoza story, smack in the middle of the book, is the longest and by far the most distinct. Free from his usual people and settings, Orozco shows off the versatility of his skills, particularly in one bravura scene in which the telling of a bawdy joke is intertwined with the increasingly vile behavior of the comandantes enjoying it.
Orozco can be overly fond of coincidence, and too credulous about its profundity. In “Hunger Tales” and “Only Connect,” plots and characters are fastened together in ways that feel overdetermined. “Shakers,” a Robert Altmanesque panorama that flits from character to character as an earthquake jolts California, occasionally hunts a bit too doggedly for the universal. The story’s insistence on our common ties (especially in the portion of it related in the second person) straddles the line between edifying empathy and New Age vagueness.
Orozco’s themes aren’t fresh, but name a theme that is. He writes in a style that feels carefully tended but not overworked. His characters are short on time and hope, and mostly they know it. When New Guy looks in the mirror and thinks, “I see somebody who doesn’t disgust me. I see somebody who knows the difference between what he does for a paycheck and what really matters in this life,” it’s exactly as unconvincing as Orozco intends it to be.
John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass, an online literary review.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 13:20