Some of the strangest fiction is based on everyday relationships. From the rituals that people do in waking up, to how we hope for a desired outcome (from praying to the various "rain dances" seen during dry spells, etc.), to how we engage in power struggles along the way of developing personal and professional relationships with other people, when we extract these actions from their "normal" setting and place them in an imagined situation, all sorts of strange, unsettling interpretations can ensue.
In Jeff VanderMeer's just released novella, The Situation, office politics plays a central role in creating an atmosphere that is as haunting for how familiar it is for the reader as it is for its modified humans and the rather grotesque objects being produced in this office situation. The story opens with a description of the narrator's manager:
Many of us have known supervisors that we would never dare think were human or who actually possessed a heart; some I never dared call by anything other than "sir" or "ma'am." Imagining a boss with such metaphorical features as a non-functioning heart as becoming literal in this story helps to draw in those readers who need some sort of "anchor" to fasten themselves to the story unfolding here. But as easy as it would be to develop a tale revolving solely around an employee's precarious position with his/her bosses, it is in the complex, byzantine relationships that the narrator/employee has with his colleagues that makes this story easy to relate with, even as the strangeness of the company grows with each passing page.
My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic, with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Sometimes, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that the paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt. I didn't know what to say in such situations. It seemed best to say nothing and avert my gaze. Over time, the runneled plastic of her arms became a tableau of insane images, leviathans and tall ships rising out of the whorling, and stranger things still. I would stare at her arms so I did not have to stare at her face. I never knew her name. We were never allowed to know our Manager's name. (Some called her their "Damager," though.) (p. 5)
Co-workers are often as much of a nuisance as a comfort, when they are not outright being one's enemy. I have worked mostly as a schoolteacher over the past decade and while the politics there differ greatly in some aspects from those of business offices, there is still quite a bit of professional jealousy that transpires between the classrooms as there does from cubicle to cubicle. Add to that the pettiness that supervisors or other colleagues can have from time to time, and the situation can grow quite hairy:
For a while, everything went well. We built the fish by hand and it took shape with a coherent design. I noticed a certain reluctance on the part of Scarskirt and Leer, but in general everyone seemed happy with my efforts.Behind this weird design product and the equally strange message delivery system lies familiar territory for a great many workers: turf battles, the desire of superiors to put their own stamp on matters, and the profession of ignorance when it suits the person involved. Perhaps the oddities mentioned in this story are all the more noticeable because many readers might find themselves remembering how the foreman somehow managed to get his/her name added at the last minute to a group project that they had shunted away to another to handle during the formative stages, only to assume control when the process was nearing completion. Maybe this situation is not as far-out as one might presume from a simple glance at the surface features.
Then the Manager finally decided to attend a meeting. Ten minutes into the meeting, she burst into flames and stood up.
We all shied away from her as she said, "The fish was to have my face. That is the last design to materialize in my office and none of what you have done since has been sent to me for approval, or is acceptable to me in any way."
This business about approval was blatantly untrue. I had sent her several messages about the changes. I had used her favorite message method: tiny crunchy bats that spurted the long-lost flavors of marzipan, chocolate mousse, and apple pie into your mouth even as you cracked down on the bones to receive the information.
But when my Manager visited my office later, she professed ignorance. She said she had not gotten any of my messages. (pp. 20-21).
For me, the central theme of the story is revealed when the narrator describes how one of his co-workers has changed:
Complicating matters, Mord, I soon discovered, had also become part of their network. Despite all of his promises, Mord had changed once he moved to Human Resources. He was now partially composed of some large furred animal, almost like a bear. He began to emit a musk that someone told me was supposed to have a calming effect on the employees. He retained his hands, but they morphed to become more like those of a raccoon. His eyes had been enlarged and refitted so he could see at night. In the dark hallways of some floors it was rumored that he whirled around and snarled and bit the air, as if encased in a straitjacket.
For a month or so, Mord had taken to following me around, and this gave hope that all would be normal. He wouldn't talk to me, but he would stand in the doorway of my office. Waiting.
Soon, though, I discovered it wasn't really Mord. It was just a shadow Mord had made of himself, and at the Manager's direction each employee had been assigned shadows. After a time, I ignored Mord's shadow and it went away.
As for the real Mord, he rarely came to our floor anymore, and if he did it was to visit Leer's office. I only saw him if he had official business.
When I suggested he come over to my apartment sometime, he ignored me.
When I suggested we go looking for sparrows, he ignored me.
For all intents and purposes, Mord had forsaken me. He had become Other. (pp. 22-23).
I have worked with people who have changed when they gained a promotion; currently, I am experiencing something akin to that now that I am working in a different capacity in a place with many co-workers of mine from a former department. It is odd, rather unsettling at times, how people distance themselves when new responsibilities are added. It can create a sense of alienation, especially when some question just how you managed to rise to such a position without you breaking any ties or changing from what you were. It is as lonely at any new position as it is at the top. This seems to be part of the narrative undercurrent here and in this scene, where Mord has become "Other," it feels so true, in part because I have been through it before on occasion.
These passages highlight only the beginnings of the narrative disillusionment and separation that precede the events of the last half of the novella. VanderMeer's characters stay true to the form established in the opening sections and as the narrator's situation, trapped in a place where he struggles to maintain himself against the crushing pressures from peers and supervisors alike, develops, the reader likely will find him/herself identifying more and more with what is transpiring, until the end is reached and the silly, stupid weirdness of such a corporate setting is revealed for what it truly is: a wretched situation. Highly recommended.
Publication Date: March 2008 (UK only), limited-edition hardcover; released as a free e-book.
Publisher: PS Publishing