RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The writer Richard Russo likes to go for morning coffee with his wife at a place where they can watch hordes of commuters spill out of a train station in Boston.
Mr. RICHARD RUSSO (Writer): My wife and I have very different reactions to that. She's had very good experiences in offices. For her, the office is a place of camaraderie, of kind of shared purpose, whereas I, on the other hand, as I watch these people all dressed up coming across the street and disappearing up into these glass towers, that's my idea of hell.
MONTAGNE: Russo says that dread might come from the stories he's read. One American novelist after another has painted a grim picture of the American office.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Richard Russo is the latest writer we've asked to review a few books. The author of "Empire Falls" and "That Old Cape Magic" chose fiction about the workplace - some old, some new. The books include a 2007 novel by Joshua Ferris called "Then We Came to the End."
Mr. RUSSO: The novel begins with a group of copywriters and artists who work at an ad agency, and there's an economic downturn and they begin to start getting laid off. They all complain bitterly about their work. They believe that their employment is keeping them in some way from being the better human beings that they would be if they weren't employed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RUSSO: And once the layoffs hit, a kind of ironic truth begins to come home to all of them, which is that they hate their jobs. And yet the thing that they are most terrified of is losing them, despite the fact that almost all of these people in the novel have some other kind of alternate version of themselves out there. There's a fellow named Hank Neary, who's got a novel in his desk. He's described as a failed novelist. And there's a painter in there. So the art people, they all have dreams of doing something else, and yet something is preventing them from doing so.
INSKEEP: And these characters who have big dreams end up arguing over who owns the office furniture, as the previous owners get fired.
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, that's one of the things that Ferris really brings to the fore is the way offices skew important things and inconsequential things. Important things - like someone's health, for instance. There's a character named Lynn who is going in the next day for a mastectomy. These things become inconsequential, but trying to track down who has stolen what bookshelf becomes of tremendous importance.
INSKEEP: Now what caused you also to recommend to us a book here called "Personal Days" by Ed Park?
Mr. RUSSO: Well, "Personal Days" is, strangely enough, despite its hilarity and its satire, also have a little bit of a mystery. There's a wonderful character named Jill who is - before she is finally fired, she is exiled to a totally different floor. She's the only one up there, and she - at first she begins to think that she's losing her mind, and her emails down to all of colleagues from whom she's been banished on the floor below become - they become more and more bizarre. And - but people don't want to go up. They don't want to visit her. They're ashamed, and they're a little scared of what's becoming of her. And when she finally is fired, they go up and they discover that she's been writing something. She's just up there constructing a work of fiction.
INSKEEP: When you talk about alienation and people who don't fit in and who are exiled, maybe that's a perfect transition to the writing of Richard Yates from several decades ago, which you also direct to our attention here.
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, yeah. And the work of Yates that everybody knows of course is "Revolutionary Road," the story of Frank Wheeler and April Wheeler. The office in Richard Yates is where dreams go to die - well, that and suburbia.
These two things - and these two things are happening in America in lockstep. There's a section in "Revolutionary Road" where Frank is going into Grand Central Station, I'll just - if you'll indulge me for a moment, it's a very short passage.
INSKEEP: Please. This is the giant commuter rail hub.
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, yeah. And he comes into Grand Central - and this was done very well in the movie, too - all of those men in fedoras coming down that escalator, all looking so very much like each other.
How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked with their gray flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet. There were endless, desperate swarms of them hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them so that to stand in one tower looking across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great, silent insectarium, displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.
INSKEEP: One of the amazing things about that passage, Richard Russo, is that the man observing this, Frank Wheeler - although he feels for a moment that he's escaped, that he's different from all those people he's sort of mocking there - he's kind of one of them, isn't he?
Mr. RUSSO: He certainly is. And we see the seeds of all of this, I think. This may not be the first American office story, but it is certainly a significant one, going back to, I think it's 1853, with Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener." He reproduces documents almost flawlessly, and he seems to be able to work hours and hours and hours on end.
There's only one problem. When he's asked to become part of a team, Bartleby utters that line that will echo throughout American literature for a couple hundred years. He says: I would prefer not to. He gives no reason. He doesn't object to the work. In fact, he doesn't object to anything. He would just prefer not to. And so the question becomes what happens in an office when you have an individual who would prefer not to? What if there isn't really a shared sense of purpose?
INSKEEP: And in the end, this is something that threatens to wreck the office, if I'm not mistaken, to the point where they end up moving the office to get away from him.
Mr. RUSSO: It's - what happens is when you get this worker who has a kind of Emersonian sense of self-reliance, the office is doomed.
INSKEEP: Richard Russo is the author of a number of novels, including "That Old Cape Magic." Thanks very much.
Mr. RUSSO: I enjoyed it.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: By the way, Richard Russo concedes you might get a warped picture of the office from the fiction he recommends. That's because novels tend to be written by people who hated the office and escaped it. You can listen to what he says about that when you're checking the news throughout this day at npr.org. And you can invite the person in the next cubical to listen, too.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.