Like many of its readers, the novel has always lived for the weekend; historically, the workaday world of the office and factory has been considered too mundane to be of much interest.
Even less sexy to fiction than the topic of work is the topic of losing work. Being fired, losing homes to foreclosure, searching for a new job in middle age — these are the grim situations so many readers today are facing. The good news is that a few standout recent novels have ingeniously decided to tackle unemployment head-on.
Stewart O'Nan is an unfailingly smart and affecting novelist, but never more so, I think, than when he writes about the economic struggles of ordinary folks. His great 2007 novella, Last Night at the Lobster, is about the last shift at a closing seafood restaurant in a crummy New England mall. Now, O'Nan has just published a powerful new novella about the unemployed called The Odds.
O'Nan's main characters, Marion and Art Fowler, are out of work and just about out of options. On the eve of their 30th anniversary, they're getting ready to divorce to protect what little assets remain. But, first, they've booked a deluxe suite at one of the honeymoon hotels in Niagara Falls. What a perfect setting to dramatize the ultimate middle-class nightmare: the fear of falling. Art's plan to turn things around, wanly agreed to by Marion, is to gamble their remaining cash on the roulette wheel at the hotel casino. If that scheme sounds improbable, it's nowhere near as bizarre as the quick demise of Art's 20-year career as an insurance agent. Here's how the end arrived:
"[Art] relied on his seniority to protect him. It seemed to through the early round of cuts. The new head of Human Resources ... had come for friends on both sides of his office, a brawny security guard trailing behind like a bouncer. ... The drill was simple: hand over your badge and take your personal possessions. No farewell lunch, no sheet cake, no gag gifts ...
He made it to July ...
They came for him in the morning, before coffee break."
It sounds like a scene out of Edgar Allan Poe, doesn't it? And that's O'Nan's brilliance in this novella, revealing the unemployment story to be the tale of everyday terror it really is.
Of course, as Ross Raisin reminds us in his new novel, Waterline, the "Great Recession" isn't just an American horror story. Raisin is a phenom in Great Britain, having won awards aplenty for his debut novel Out, Backward. In Waterline he tells the evocative story of Mick Little, who has just lost his wife, Cathy, to cancer. The cancer may have been caused by the asbestos Mick tracked into their little house every evening after his shift ended at the Glasgow shipyards. The shipyards are dead now, too, being renovated into an "industrial heritage" theme park. Waterline follows Mick as he searches for a second act in life, scrubbing dishes in a hotel kitchen, sleeping in homeless shelters. There's a lot of wisecracking working-class humor in Waterline and strong echoes of George Orwell's classic, Down and Out in London and Paris.
One American literary subgenre where hard-luck characters have always taken refuge is crime noir, those hard-boiled tales of men and women driven to the shadow side to make a buck. Crime noir was a product of the 1930s; in fact, James M. Cain, the king of crime noir, said that his classic, Double Indemnity, was a story of the Great Depression. Another Cain masterpiece, Mildred Pierce, is set in 1931, and the novel, unlike the movie versions, focuses obsessively on Mildred's struggles to make a living. A contemporary crime noir writer who walks in Cain's down-at-the-heel footsteps is Dave Zeltserman; his novels, Small Crimes and Pariah, are about as nasty and clever as noir can get. Zeltserman, who was a software engineer in his previous life, has written out a dark gem of a story called Outsourced about four computer geeks who are laid off and decide to take advantage of a glitch in a security program that one of them had installed in a bank to rob it. Zeltserman's pulp sensitivity to panic makes this novel a macabre delight to read. Before they hit on the robbery scheme, his characters spend down their 401(k)s and frantically shave years off their resumes. The bank heist plan is about as nutty as the Fowlers' gamble on that roulette wheel in Niagara Falls, but in desperate times, these unemployment novels tell us, all bets are off.