- Courtesy Of Amanda Starr Photography
- Amy Klinger
Whatever happened to the workplace novel? Specifically, what happened to all those novels about young people slacking their way through life in big, sleepy American corporations, wondering idly whether they should get jobs they cared more about?
Since the Great Recession, those dull jobs with comfy benefits haven't been so plentiful. Hustle culture has replaced "The Office." These days, even the notion of working in an office may seem a little quaint.
For all of those reasons, Richmond author Amy Klinger's novel In Light of Recent Events evokes immediate nostalgia. Set in 1996 — the heyday of the workplace novel — it tells the story of Audrey Rohmer, a thirtysomething middle manager who presides over the production of boring, lucrative textbooks.
In Audrey's own words, she is a "[p]seudo-voyeur, coaster, technically single young woman with a slight case of ennui and an undersized sense of ambition." Her lack of drive — so antithetical to the ideals of the American workplace — "only mildly troubled me."
It's tough to care about a protagonist who doesn't care about much, but Audrey's crackling, witty narration pulls us in. Sometimes Klinger's prose hovers on the dangerous edge of cutesiness, as when Audrey says she's in "an obvious state of inebriation, which had only gotten inebriated-er."
But the jokes alternate with clear-eyed, evocative descriptions. Describing the Jersey Shore off-season, Klinger writes: "The light cast everything in varying shades of concrete, and the air wasn't just cold, it was salt-stinging, toothy and vicious."
Though Audrey may not have drive, she does have distractions that make her workdays bearable. There's Dan, her married boss, with whom she's having an ill-advised affair. And there's Pooter, her administrative assistant and friend, a classic '90s slacker whom she calls "my partner in apathy, the two of us leaning cynically on each other and smirking our way to the next paycheck." You can almost hear Beck droning "Loser" in the background.
- In Light of Recent Events by Amy Klinger, the Story Plant, 336 pages. $16.95.
Klinger clearly knows her suburban New Jersey setting well. For a while, Audrey's story ambles pleasantly but uneventfully along. This pacing, too, feels retro; in our current attention economy, novelists tend to get their plots well under way by the 50-page mark.
But Audrey's life does get a major jolt around page 100, when she receives a call from James Keefner, a childhood friend of her brother's who made it big in Hollywood. Back in his old neighborhood in the aftermath of a too-public temper tantrum, the movie star is looking for a safe place to crash. More or less by chance, he turns to Audrey, who offers him all the comforts of ordinariness along with her trademark dry humor. He tells her that he needs "Time out of the spotlight to just be, you know?" She shoots back: "Yeah, not really something I struggle with."
If Klinger's novel belonged to the genre that used to be called "chick lit," this would be the setup for a romance. Fear not: Audrey and James' relationship remains platonic — and amusingly awkward.
As the two spend more time together, their unlikely commonalities come into focus. While James is an achiever and Audrey is most decidedly not, both have suffered losses that fill their childhood neighborhood with bittersweet associations. Gradually, the reader comes to understand that Audrey's aimlessness isn't just generational. Though five years have passed since the death of her mother, she's struggling to move on to the next phase of her life, burdened by grief and a sense of things left unfinished.
Some jarringly unnecessary shifts in perspective slow down the novel's latter half. But the story eventually comes around to a satisfying ending, by turns farcical and poignant.
"People interpret the expression 'Shit happens' to mean that bad things will always come along," Audrey says. By the end of her story, however, she understands the phrase in a different way. Even for a self-described do-nothing, "events take place, stories move forward. Shit happens."
We may not need this insight in our doomscrolling world, where someone is constantly informing us that civilization is on the brink of collapse. Along with nostalgia and strong prose, however, Klinger's blast-from-the-past novel offers a reminder that some things never change — among them grief, friendship and the vital importance of good bagels.
From In Light of Recent Events
[A]s long as I had a reliable paycheck that afforded me a comfortable home and the ability to take a nice vacation once a year, I found little to complain about, and even less to strive toward.
And I had found a kind of kindred spirit in my administrative assistant, who, like a pain-in-the-ass younger brother, was equal parts exasperating and entertaining. We were part of the Economics Department in the Business Division of the College Textbooks Unit of Preston House Publishing. Like me, Pooter was not wired for climbing the corporate ladder. But while my strategy was to blend into the background as an undistinguished, mildly effective middle manager, Pooter's was to channel a sort of harmless con-man who succeeded by being exceptionally helpful to everyone but me. I, he assured me, was too clever to fall for that kind of ingratiating behavior.
Together, we formed a kind of Wonder Twins alliance, facing off against corporate America with the sheer force of our own skepticism of things like leadership training and wellness initiatives. We might have been cogs in the wheel, but we were not just along for the ride.