Natur & Kultur, 2015.
Reviewed by Eric Dickens in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Backlist
This is the bleakest of books, set in an office environment: a well written but depressing reflection on the workings of our present-day society. When you first flick through this short novel, you may think you are going to read prose poetry. The contents, however, are anything but. Elise Karlsson (born 1981) has enlivened her text by writing it in short sections, varying from a couple of lines per page to two or three pages at a stretch. There are no chapter divisions.
The protagonist, Emma, has been unemployed for quite some time and now manages to get a temporary job at a publishing agency that deals principally with self-help manuals and arranging lectures on management. The enterprise’s own management uses all the devices and architectural design familiar to people in white-collar jobs throughout the world: open-plan and glassed-in offices, pass cards for entrance and exit, coffee machines, automatic window blinds that respond to light, group work to encourage bonding, working lunches, office parties and pub visits, and so on. This is ‘The Office’ without the smug, smirking presence of Ricky Gervais, aka David Brent. The managing director is a woman, but this makes no difference to the way the company operates; the middle managers are men.
During her original job interview Emma concealed a couple of things. Firstly, that she comes from a non-U Stockholm suburb, where car burning, gang fighting, and similar are the norm. Secondly, that she knew someone whom the management also knew and who later died. She is in denial; she wants to fit in, and is happy to ‘rearrange’ her CV in order to do so. She is a nose-to-the-grindstone workaholic who has conformed to the norms of the company in the way that Winston ultimately conforms to the wishes of Big Brother. She is ambitious, and hardly seems to care what type of publishing work she will be obliged to perform, as long as she climbs the ladder of promotion. And in her way she succeeds. She finally obtains permanent tenure.
Nevertheless, she remains one of a group that sociologists and economists term the ‘precariat’, people who can be sacked or relocated at the drop of a hat. This permanent insecurity affects her emotional life. She appears to have no life outside the office, yet few of her colleagues become acquaintances, let alone friends. Emma does fall in love with Billy, who already has a family, but when their fling ends they grow distant; by the end of the book they are permanently separated when Billy gets the sack, though she still appears to love him. She tries to relate to another man, but seems overwhelmed by the office atmosphere, and that relationship doesn’t work either. Emma’s emotional life becomes something of a mess, and the author suggests that the office is largely to blame. Descriptions of Emma’s activities outside office hours are kept to a bare minimum: ‘I no longer drink coffee at home. No longer eat at home. My job feeds me.’ Stylistically, the novel is almost chilly. Everything is pared down to reflect office life.
This is Elise Karlsson’s third novel; the first two were also short. She is best known in Sweden as a regular book reviewer for Svenska Dagbladet.