Nikil Saval is an assistant editor at the journal n+1.
One of the notable events in recent literary history was a modest bump in the number of novels about white-collar work. The two most heralded were, significantly, debuts: Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End and Ed Park’s Personal Days. Both young authors, possessed of little experience besides what their cubicle daydreaming and job insecurity had supplied, they exploited the potential of office spaces to their extreme, and the immediate response these novels elicited from reviewers was: “more!” We needed more novels about bagel brunches, useless meetings, excessive coffee drinking, awkward exchanges, e-mails and layoffs. We were to re-experience what so many of us went through every day, to know it as pain, to see the expression of that pain among others as a form of solidarity.
One recent book suggests a different approach to the question of the office novel: Christian Jungersen’s The Exception, an oblique entry into the genre. Its main characters work at the Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), where they begin to receive death threats on their e-mail. Death threats turn to grim pranks: the office librarian knocks over a bucketful of blood secreted on her bookshelves. Initially, suspicions fall on a Balkan war criminal residing in Denmark, whose crimes the researchers have exposed; Jungersen’s twist (one of many in the novel) is to reverse the outward search back into the office, where the already heated interpersonal dynamics curdle into distrust. Jungersen manages these various strands appallingly well with a minimum of artifice (his prose is unadorned, almost to the point of being slack and lackluster). He heightens the sense of entrapment by drastically limiting the perspectives to three principal characters for most of the novel, each of whom is possessed and blinded by a different variety of paranoid reasoning. Even better is Jungersen’s recreation of the longueurs of white-collar existence: the dramatic pacing is deliberately slowed by painstaking evocations of chilly office lunches and competitive meetings. This combination of office life and the generic conventions of a thriller produces a book unlike anything I have read before. At the heart of The Exception is a peculiarly European meditation on the nature of evil, and the banal way that one’s office life can dissipate and create human solidarities, pitting one artificial network against another. In Jungersen’s novel, the office is not a place where you go to work; it is a structure in your head, watching you, directing and corroding your thoughts well after you have left it. I read no better novel this year, and it is one of the best I have read in several years.