The Fiction of Meaningful Work

The Fiction of Meaningful Work

Kikuko Tsumura’s new novel examines what unites jobs good or bad: the stories we tell ourselves to cope with how much toil sucks in the first place.


An illusion has been abandoned before Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job begins. Work, once central and all-consuming for Tsumura’s unnamed narrator, a 36-year-old woman in Japan, has grown stale—something she wishes to minimize, since, sadly, toil cannot be avoided. The narrator reveals only scant details at first as to how she came to this shift. She quit her last job because of burnout, moved in with her parents, and has resolved to find the least exciting, least emotionally taxing job possible.

Midway through the book, seated across from her temp agency recruiter, the narrator reflects on what sort of role would actually appeal to her: “A job counting the number of sparrows sitting on telegraph cables, or the number of red cars passing through a crossing” are the first examples that come to mind. She worries, though, that it would seem like she was joking if she earnestly suggested them. “So I kept quiet, but in truth I was semi-serious,” she thinks. “I wanted a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not.”

The work that the recruiter finds for our unnamed narrator is not far off from the kind she daydreams about. Not quite odd jobs, they’re simply odd: Her first role consists entirely of watching surveillance footage of a man suspected of being in possession of stolen goods, waiting for him to open a DVD case in which the items are believed to be hidden. She then goes on to write bus ads, runs a mini advice column printed on the back of cracker packets, puts up posters with public service announcements, and works in a tiny hut in a vast national forest, where her only required tasks are folding tickets and leisurely mapping the landmarks on the grounds.

The narrator’s goal for each of these positions is to remain detached. Loving your job or becoming personally invested in it at all is not only inadvisable, she believes, but “inappropriate.” Work and life—which is to say love, friendship, emotions of any kind—should be separate. This attitude, adopted from the outset, separates Tsumura’s narrator from her counterparts in other contemporary novels about women laboring under capitalism. In books like Halle Butler’s Jillian and The New Me, the protagonists hold on to fantasies that they can overcome precarity and succeed in corporate America until, through a series of disappointments and failures, they’re forced to confront the grim reality of their situation. The narrator in Temporary, Hilary Leichter’s debut novel, continues to yearn for a permanent full-time job—“the steadiness,” she calls it—even as her temp positions reveal the absurdity of work in principle. Otessa Moshfegh’s protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation has a revelation about the fundamental bullshit nature of jobs early on, but her answer to it is to opt for “sleeping and feeling nothing,” the general disposition of many of the women characters who feature in these works.

Tsumura’s narrator may be burned out, but she isn’t numb. Instead she’s alive to the amusing ironies and unexpected pleasures of working life, of which—it turns out—there are many, even though she continually seeks out completely meaningless work. As each temp job gradually tips into the uncanny, she allows herself to be swept up in these micro dramas: She investigates why a Spanish tapas bar opens or closes depending on whether its bus ad runs, and solves a mystery that involves articles of clothing appearing throughout the national park. Small tasks snowball into complex plots. Each job is its own self-contained ecosystem, with a governing logic the narrator uncovers little by little. This is what jobs are about, good or bad, Tsumura seems to suggest: exercises in narrative-making. If all jobs at some point blur the categories of work and life, as our narrator comes to conclude, if they all suck—at least a little—in their own way, then one’s ability to cope depends on how much meaning one vests in mundanities. There may be no easy jobs, but a good job might merely be the one where you believe in the story.

To the narrator’s frustration, her jobs turn out to carry more meaning than she wants them to. What starts out as a gig writing trivia on the back of cracker packets turns into a job doling out advice and “helpful tips,” which end up saving a stranger’s life. The narrator discovers she can also help her coworkers solve their everyday problems. She helps one repair a beloved plate that’s been shattered, another to figure out what to make for dinner, and a third who asks her to write a tip on what to do if the nose pads on your glasses keep falling off. At her final temp placement, in the forest, she finds a man who has been declared missing by the police and talks to him about why he ran away from his life. He confides in her: He was feeling crushed by work.

The tension in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is born from the narrator’s perfect certainty about what she wants from a job—boring nothingness, for a paycheck—and her seeming inability to remain disinterested, emotionally removed. There comes a point in each job at which she confesses to enjoying some aspect of her work, as if violating her own conscience. “I was rationally aware that it wasn’t a good idea to get too emotionally involved in what I was doing, but it was also difficult to prevent myself from taking satisfaction in it,” she reflects during her copywriting gig. “Truthfully, I was happy when people took pleasure in my work, and it made me want to try harder.” While conceiving of a plan to best a competing PSA poster company, she worries that she’s “exercising an unnecessary degree of enthusiasm.” But she can’t help it: “It was pretty fun, this job.” Even when she’s not having fun, the narrator finds comfort in being assigned a straightforward task that she can competently complete. “I felt simple gratitude washing over me at having a task to fill my time,” she says of the experience of loading a box onto a trolley. (It helps that her bosses treat her with basic dignity and respect throughout, the condition that makes it possible to appreciate what, in another setting, could easily be experienced as drudgery.)

The book, broken into discrete sections for each job, oscillates between these two positions: As soon as the narrator begins to enjoy herself, she becomes overwhelmed by some of the familiar travails of work. At her first temp job, she is frustrated that the man she’s surveilling, an author who works from home, seems to have more freedom than she does. She covets the items in his home—a gleaming magnetic knife block, a drying rack with dozens of tiny clips to hang clothing—but can’t order them online because the company doesn’t allow her to receive personal packages at the office, and her hours make it difficult to sign for them at home. When she tries to buy the sausages she sees the man eating after she clocks out, she arrives at the supermarket only to find that they’ve sold out over the course of her workday. Later, struggling to come up with ideas for factoids at her cracker packet job, the narrator indulges in self-loathing, chastising herself for failing to produce at the pace required of her.

Though the book is studded with characters who struggle with burnout, lopsided work-life balances, and exhausting emotional labor, these sorts of laments are not as frequent as they are in other contemporary office novels, which tend to wallow in the abject cheerlessness of work itself. Protagonists in these books are surrounded by phony colleagues and depressing office spaces, and they are usually filled with so much self-loathing that genuine relationships with other people seem impossible—even when it comes to best friends and boyfriends, they are almost universally indifferent. Tsumura’s narrator bears none of these characteristics: She is a frank and sympathetic observer of her own life and the lives of her coworkers.

In another book, her sincere reflections on the true spirit of working life could be read as a bit pat, but in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, they are quietly moving. “For no reason I properly understood, I felt that a hole had opened up in my heart,” the narrator tells us when she finds herself in search of a new temp placement once again. “If being busy would prevent me from having to look at that hole, I could probably handle any kind of job.” The simplicity of an axiom like this—an acknowledgement that, in some cases, an all-consuming job might be a welcome distraction from other unhappinesses—is stark against the subtly surreal landscape Tsumura creates. The combination of tone and setting makes these lessons seem more novel and, somehow, more true. This is to say: I welcomed the earnestness.

Perhaps this is not a precise political position to take on selling one’s labor: Could work be… good? Our narrator’s answer to this question nearly deflates the book because it is so obvious. And, frankly, because it’s also unsatisfying after the whimsical, subtly strange episodes that precede it. After revealing that she’d been working as a medical social worker at the time she burned out, the narrator considers that, having now tried out a handful of different temp positions, it might be best to return to her field. In a characteristically earnest reflection, she thinks, “I had no way of knowing what pitfalls might be lying in wait for me, but what I’d discovered by doing five jobs in such a short span of time was this: the same was true of everything.”

It is almost a tired trope now that protagonists grope toward an epiphany that typically arrives at the plot’s climax. Since our narrator reaches hers before we even meet her—work sucks, basically—the events of the book seem to happen in reverse. After flitting from job to job, she is back where she started. Of course, this is another well-trod convention: The hero goes out on a quest to find love, clarity, spiritual fulfillment, etc., and realizes what they were searching for was at home all along. What is most compelling about There Is No Such Thing as an Easy Job is what happens in between, the way Tsumura’s narrator tries to keep work separate from life and the way life keeps creeping in. Because isn’t it usually the other way around?

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