We asked the authors of Dead Man Working, Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming, to give us something on the world of work – one area of our lives we can pretty much all agree is fucked. They came back with this brilliant short story, in which they compare work to the creepy client that demands to cuddle up to his hooker all night long.
Illustration by Anna Trench.
Blue. Why does the sky have to be so blue? Today of all days? Standing up here, with only a mere knot of seconds left to my name. I look up again and it blinds me. My Hugo Boss suit whimpers under its brilliance. I clutch my leather briefcase to remind me of the decision made only moments earlier as I stared at another corporate lunch. Overpriced, lifeless prawns. “Oh, I didn’t know you were a cannibal”, my team leader said in a desperate attempt to cheer me up. I was looking around. A sea of dead faces in sad dark suits, all secretly dreading the moment it’s time to leave the rooftop restaurant and return to hell. I recalled this scene as I moved an inch closer to the precipice. I looked down to consider the street below. I’ve always been afraid of heights, since I was a child, but that was somehow irrelevant now. The littered, Holborn cobblestones below look beautiful from here. But I was not anticipating that mocking blue sky. Fuck you. It should be grey, dead, like all of the other days, a low vaulted screen of mud that mirrors my movement backwards and forwards from the office.
Shouldn’t I consider myself lucky? On the tube the other day I read a story about the Rat Catcher of Mumbai. They said it was the worst job in the world. What do I have to complain about? I’m overpaid. Eat in expensive restaurants. Have a beautiful girlfriend. I wish that made me feel better, but it doesn’t. Inside my suit is someone I don’t recognize or even like. A disgusting blip that makes money, sucks up to the boss, and is chained to a laptop that drains my time without end. I’ve got to get out. Whoever invented email ought to be shot. I hate sex. I despise holidays. They simply remind me that my life has been over for a long time. I want to leave, but can’t. There seems to be no outside or exterior point. I want to be the Rat Catcher of Mumbai. Anything but this interminable nothingness that has stolen my body. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about my boss, a report I fudged a figure on, mistakes that might come to light the next morning. I try to comfort myself: in a year’s time I’ll look back on all these small worries and wonder what the fuss was all about. Life will go on. But it is all put on repeat, and at 3am there is no way out. This work poisons everything, your past and future. Such a little thing, but it grows and gathers around me like a living coffin. I want to trade places with the Rat Catcher, but I wont. I can’t even quit this stupid job. In the street below bustles an endless throng of coffins wandering back to the office. Maybe I will hit one of them with my coffin? Deep blue above.
I don’t seem able to tell exactly when I become this broken caricature of a person, completely taken over by my job. It kind of just happened, although I made it happen of course. By the way, I don’t have much of a clue what work actually is: that notion assumes I know of a world beyond it, a counterpoint. It’s said that a person is an enigma. Without wanting to sound self-important, I think that applies to me too. But that’s only because the pointless habit of working is an enigma. It seems to be this autonomous thing, existing exclusively for it own sake, no longer linked to survival or whatever. At least the Rat Catcher makes a difference. As for me, overpaid and sad, I seem to be trapped inside a made-up job doing made-up things. And it’s this immaterial aspect that makes it so hard to find a way out, since a job is no longer something I just do among other things. I am my job. It’s in my DNA and gait, always with me, even when asleep. But no one will remember me or my made-up job in hundred year’s time. And I know I ought to be thankful for that.
For some reason the blue sky above reminds me of my parents. They seemed to inhabit two distinct lives, two worlds. They had their working life, and then a private one. Like me, they would come home from the office, usually in a foul mood, but they would then turn into someone else, something more… akin to life? I’m not romanticizing the past. Really, they hated their jobs. They loathed how work made them put on fake smiles, greet people they wanted to kill and always suck up to the self-congratulatory boss. They were fucked – badly fucked – but only when at the office. After they left the building they could resurface again, dust off their job and start to live.
Things are different now, at least for me. Despite secretly fucking around with that report, my office managers actually seem to like me. And I hate them for it. They tell me, “just be yourself”. Apparently, this is the new management approach. The boss loves it when I’m acting weird. He says that’s really good, because it means I show my real self. It’s all about authenticity. This place I’m working for… I don’t want to say too much about it, but they have this farcical idea that we are youthful, edgy and counter-cultural artist-types. I hate art. They talk about Sartre and Marx, and then make these ludicrous connections to flat workplace hierarchies and ‘task-autonomy’. As if we were cultural critics!
Why is death so often depicted by the colour blue in classical art? Why not black or grey?
I watched this documentary some time back. It perfectly summed up how my job makes use of me. It was about a brothel, somewhere in Nevada, USA. I’m not saying that these women loved what they were doing, but they seemed somehow resigned to lending their bodies to some unrefined truck driver who’d come in for a quick fuck. What really freaked them out was to spend a night with this creepy guy called Humping Hank. The name was ironic, because he didn’t fuck them. That was the whole point. He bought the G-F-E, or girlfriend experience. Humping Hank only wanted long, long nights together. They’d watch TV, eat popcorn, laugh, kiss and hug.
That’s how my company squeezes the life out of me. I think about it as this embodiment of Humping Hank. I’m not fucked and then left alone. Instead I’m hugged and nurtured. I’m asked to be myself and authentic. And as a result, I’m never left alone. Turning-off is no longer an option. Escape is impossible. Especially when things go wrong, like that report. My stupid little job follows me around like that monster chasing Dr. Frankenstein. And the monster’s curse never stops whispering in my ear: I shall be with you on your wedding night!
That’s when I tell myself: if only I was just fucked and left alone.
A small, imperceptible step. Then the silent flight. Down the eight stories and onto Holborn. My team leader will say that it came out of the blue. He simply got up from his king-prawns and jumped. I will disrupt the traffic for a couple of hours. Commuters will be angry. Tomorrow they might feel a twinge of guilt as they browse through the newspaper to find a dry report, reading: ‘Another city worker falls to his death from rooftop restaurant’. I like the anonymous sound. They are correct not to attach any glamour to it.
Yet it’s hard to motivate myself to actually do it, not because I have a meaningful life to return to, or any happy moments looming in the near future. It’s just hard to see the point of it, when I’m already infinitely closer to death than life. ‘I am as sick of death as I am of life’. The philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote these words, and I find myself slowly repeating them. Death and life are indistinguishable. Or maybe it’s the idea of death, my constant obsession with stepping off that rooftop, that makes me get through another dreadful day. I find myself using death as an excuse not to live. Isn’t it ironic? By imagining a final terminus I rivet myself to a life of perpetual non-living, one that has neither beginning nor end. I thought it was supposed to be the other way round, that death would teach us how to live?
Out of the blue, something strange seems to emerge from this state of hyper-hopelessness. I wouldn’t rehearse the cliché that I’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t especially like tunnels, and I prefer life when it’s dark. What I’m trying to say is that I feel weirdly relieved, as if a horrible weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The moment I abandon the thought of my own imminent death and instead accept that I am entirely subsumed by the imposing logic of work – I know, this doesn’t sound very promising – it’s precisely at that moment I begin to see a way out. This insignificant thing called a job now looks rather pathetic compared to dying. So I made a mistake, a few bad decisions.
Fuck this game of self-entrapment. I don’t want to go out in a blaze. I don’t need the ending from Fight Club, with its violent self-beatings and a good redundancy package. I don’t need any accompanying soundtrack or fireworks. Nothing. I just need to get the fuck out. I need to leave these ruins behind. To cut myself loose. I will hand in my resignation letter, tell them to fuck off, and then I’ll move on. I don’t know where. All I know is that I will keep moving, and stay out of sight. I will fuck off, and finally be left alone.
Dead Man Working is available on Zero Books.
Read this in print – pick up your copy of Strike! here