Rachel Cantor’s wildly original first book, A Highly Unlikely Scenario: or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, follows the adventures of Leonard, a loveable shut-in and great listener whose only contact with the outside world comes through his job manning Neetsa Pizza’s complaints hotline. Cantor takes us on a history tour through the worst jobs from literature.
I confess a weakness for workplace literature. While more or less public spaces (most of us don’t work at our kitchen tables), workplaces are also strangely private—private because, generally speaking, they are closed systems with their own weird cultures, and strangely specific expectations of what is okay and not okay. Take the unwritten rules of baseball: if you play baseball the “right way,” you don’t admire your home run, you don’t bunt when a pitcher is close to a no-hitter, you don’t step on the pitcher’s mound … These workplace rules are known even outside baseball because players sometimes disregard them, and then they get beaned (and if they get beaned, they can’t rub the sore spot!), and fights ensue (and every player must run out of the dugout to participate!). Every workplace has its code, and its familial dysfunctions: people may not get beaned, but they suffer other torments. And some workplaces, some jobs, are decidedly worse than others. From a literary perspective, all happy workers are alike, but an unhappy worker is great to read about. I give you, then, some of the worst jobs in literature.
1. Law-copyist, Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville
Most folks in terrible jobs try to muddle along; Bartleby the scrivener famously does not. His job is to copy law papers, his view a “lofty brick wall, black by age” just feet from his window. He works hard at first, writing day and night “as if long famishing for something to copy.” But on day three, asked to proof a document (admittedly a “very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair”), he utters the immortal words: “I would prefer not to.” A few days later, asked to check the accuracy of lengthy quadruplicates from the High Court of Chancery, he again prefers not to. Eventually he declines even to carry letters to the post office, or to leave the office for any purpose, and comes, as we know, to a very not good end.
2. Professional Faster, “A Hunger Artist,” Franz Kafka
Being a professional faster isn’t what it used to be, Kafka’s narrator in “A Hunger Artist” explains. Used to be it was a great treat to watch the progress of a fast; children especially enjoyed it. Trusted watchers made sure the hunger artist didn’t cheat; members of the public spent whole days watching the spectacle. At the end of forty days, two lasses would help the artist out of his cage and lead him toward food. Eventually, however, interest in the faster’s artistry waned. The hunger artist had to work with the circus, the hunger artist was ignored in favor of animals, then the hunger artist was forgotten altogether.
3. Babysitter, “The Babysitter,” Robert Coover
In this classic story, the babysitter is ogled by the father, the boy drops his dinner on the ground, the girl screams when it’s time to take a bath, then runs around the house naked, then out of spite, pees in the bathwater. That’s just the start. As the plot proliferates into alternate storylines which may or may not be ‘real,’ the babysitter may or may not be spied upon in the bath, forcibly disrobed by the children, raped by her boyfriend and his friend and maybe the father of the house. And she changes a disgusting diaper, which may or may not soil her hands and everything she touches (etc.).
4. Clone, Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
If you’re a clone in Kazuo Ishiguro’s mesmerizing novel Never Let Me Go, you’re destined to be a “donor,” to share your organs one by one with “normals” until you “complete,” which is to say, die. Enough said.
5. Officer’s servant, “Gusev,” Anton Chekhov
Being an officer’s servant in the tsar’s army has its risks. If you manage to survive the army, you might get sick and discharged, and left, basically, to rot and die. Gusev, the discharged soldier in Chekhov’s classic story of the same name, is on a ship, in a hammock, thinking alternately of fish the size of mountains, the snowy home to which he is returning after five years’ service “in the East,” and, because he is feverish, a “huge bull’s head without eyes.” If Gusev’s neighbor on the ship is to be believed, Gusev was put on the steamer precisely because the army doctors wanted to get rid of him, knowing he would never make it home. And [spoiler alert] he doesn’t.
6. Concubine, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Offred is the titular handmaid of Margaret Atwood’s chilling The Handmaid’s Tale. Known to be fertile, she is given to a high-ranking couple after a theocratic revolution so she can have highly ritualized sex with the husband (the wife is always present) and, they hope, conceive for them a child.
7. Mother, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
Moms get a bad rap: literature is filled to bursting with bad moms. But Eva Khatchadourian, the mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, has an impossible task: she has to love a boy who has always been off, who has always been hateful, who has treated her with spite and contempt, who is quite possibly evil, and who, we eventually learn [spoiler alert!], murders his classmates and others at his school. Is it her fault? What could she have done differently?
8. Waiter, “Sea Oak," George Saunders
The hero of George Saunders’ “Sea Oak” (where there’s “no sea and no oak”) is a waiter at Joysticks. When Mr. Frendt announces Shirts Off, off come the flight jackets. Your Cute Rating is all-important: if you’re a Knockout, Honeypie, or Adequate, tables call you to wait on them; if your Cute Rating drops to Stinker, it’s time to “move gracefully to the next station of life.” Joysticks is well policed to ensure that waiters don’t display their “units” in a bid for tips, but when Aunt Bernie comes back from the dead, she commands our hero to, well, do just that: the family needs the money, so she’ll put a thumbprint on the forehead of anyone she knows will respond positively to such a display. She continues to insist even as pieces of her start falling off …
9 & 10. Queen, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Queen is a dangerous thing to be. In these two marvelous, justly plauded novels, Hilary Mantel chronicles the fate of the first two brides of Henry VIII—first the fall from grace of Catherine of Aragon, who was merely banished from court and exiled to a distant castle, and then the gruesome death of Anne Boleyn who, we all know, lost her head after being convicted of high treason (her charges included incest, adultery, and witchcraft).
Shortlist: Emergency room worker in Denis Johnson’s “Emergency Room”; philosophy professor in Lars Iyer’s Spurious; governess in Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.