Day Job

Alissa Lara Quart reviews 'Day Job' by Jonathan Baird.

Published September 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Day Job" bears the axiom: It only looks like a book. A better one might be: It only looks like a Gen X book. After all, "Day Job" shares the homegrown, hard-to-read quality of Gen X zines. Here's the book's gimmick: It's ostensibly a real journal, accessorized with a fake coffee-cup ring and margin doodles. The narrative itself is "typed" on mock blue lined writing paper. But unlike most texts of this genre -- cyber memoirs, kiddie capitalist tracts, "Dilbert"-like rants from cubicle dwellers -- "Day Job" is actually worth the effort it takes to read it.

The book's narrator, Matt Thornton, is a young, white wage slave who's wasting his photographic skills as a customer service representative. Our hero pokes sad fun at cubicle culture and arrives at uncommonly acute observations, noting such things as the terrible inspirational puns ("Here We 'Grow' Again!") and the mindless workplace martyr ("Whether she leaves the building at all, in fact, is a secret of the third shift and the cleaning crews"). There's a biting taxonomy of a middle manager ("What human jerky would look like if they were to make such a thing"): "He knows how weighty an adversary he's got in our apathy, and he knows his fear-and-money management style won't eliminate it, only put it off in some dark recess where it'll anneal into something permanent and truly sinister." "Day Job" really shows its teeth and its inventiveness in a chapter on management gurus. A speaker, Jay Gathers, visits Matt's office bearing props, among them a fan-blade entitled "winds of change." Gathers finally gets the company's managers to write their groups' flaws on the sides of melons and then sledgehammer the melons to bits.

But this novelty novella is not just a parody of corporate life. Matt gives voice to the desperation so many feel when confronted with the fruitlessness of their labor. He admits that he longs for that feeling of "belonging or correctness" in his job and winds up concluding that, somewhere else, "People are finding their rightful place in the working world."

As it happens, "Day Job" isn't the work of a hard-luck middle manager. The author, Jonathan Baird, is a 26-year-old who was formerly art director for the publishing consulting firm Allen & Osborne, which published the book. (Baird wrote and illustrated it as part of his own "day job.") His aim seems entirely true, however -- especially if you discount his attempts to trick the book up with gratuitous quotations from the likes of Emerson, Proust and business Svengali Steven Covey.

Baird's a lively writer who's got a gift for depicting the unhappy, dull materials of life, the stuff that fiction usually tries to help us escape. If Allen & Osborne wanted to find a real selling point for "Day Job," it should have peddled the book as what it is: a unique piece of fiction. After all, how many good recent novels have tackled office culture? In today's literary climate, with authors competing to gross us all out, digging into workaday realities might be the most transgressive act of all.

By Alissa Lara Quart

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