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A Healthy Work-Life Balance: Five Novels Whose Characters Actually Have Jobs (and Not in Academia)

Most of us spend the majority of our time at work. It’s often the one obligation we can’t avoid—we can’t even put it off till Tuesday. Relationships with colleagues and bosses can be amongst the most difficult in our lives, and from time to time workplace anxieties keep all of us awake at night.

But novels have a tendency to gloss over all of that. How many times have you read a novel about a writer who never seems to sit at her desk? Or about an academic who doesn’t once go to the library? I’ll bet you can count on one hand the number of novels you’ve read about a character who works for minimum wage. And even when a character does have a demanding or a soul-destroying job, we often don’t see her doing it for more than a few paragraphs at a time.

Of course it’s true that however hard we work, the things that matter most to us are our families and our personal lives, and novelists prefer to work in the heart’s most fertile territory. But it’s also true that it’s kind of unfashionable for writers—or artists of any kind—to be interested in work. The reason for this changes: sometimes it’s because work is bourgeois and conventional, in other times and places it’s because work is what the little people do. But it also makes practical sense. Unless your job is ‘writer,’ the chances are that your work doesn’t leave a lot of time for jotting your thoughts down, or put you in the mood for it either.

These five novels are precious exceptions to the rule. They tackle the tedium of unfulfilling work, the anxiety of choosing between careers, the irritation and camaraderie of colleague relationships, the exhilaration of success, the despair of failure and the damage work can do to family life.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

This 1958 novel remains the high water mark of English working-class literature. Jack Seaton is a 21-year-old lathe operator at a bicycle factory. His motto: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ But resisting the bastards is hard work. Jack begins the novel seven gins and eleven pints deep, and as soon as he’s picked himself up from the bottom of the stairs he’ll be back for more.

Sillitoe has profound sympathy for the nihilism which results when youthful energy is hemmed in by demanding, boring work, with no prospect of advancement and no opportunity for self-expression. Jack Seaton is one of literature’s most lovable bastards, and the passages in which he tries to occupy his seething mind while he operates his lathe are some of the best descriptions of work you’ll find anywhere.

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London and the South-East

Szalay’s All That Man Is was nominated for the Booker Prize last year, but excellent though it is, for my money it’s surpassed by an earlier novel of his, the overlooked London and the South-East.

We’re introduced to our hero, Paul Rainey, as he tries desperately to flog advertising space in European Procurement Management, a magazine that does not exist. Szalay renders the strip-lit tedium of the sales floor with painful accuracy. He is a master of descriptive texture, especially when whatever he’s describing is mildly stomach-turning: the pub where the salesmen reluctantly congregate after work is decorated in ‘muted ragu tones.’

When Paul is forced to leave his job under farcical circumstances, he pledges never to sell anything again. Unfortunately, for a middle-aged man in poor health, there aren’t many opportunities to ‘do something outside.’

Szalay is especially sensitive to the indignities that working life can thrust upon people. Paul is miserable, embittered and betrayed, but his situation is also very silly, and he’s only making it sillier. Although Szalay is never less than sympathetic to Paul’s mid-life crisis, London and the South-East is uproariously funny.

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Revolutionary Road

Although his reputation has enjoyed a revival in recent years, Richard Yates remains one of the most underappreciated novelists of the twentieth century—perhaps because his writing is so painfully bleak, and so painfully true. Few writers have captured with such accuracy the despair of a wasted life, the prisonhouse of a bad marriage, the unglamorous disintegration of alcoholism. But despite their bleakness, his novels are also witty and charming, his prose miraculously elegant. Revolutionary Road is his finest achievement.

Frank and April met in bohemian New York, after the War, but now they live in the suburbs with two kids. When April’s performance in an amateur play goes embarrassingly badly, she conceives the plan of moving the family to Paris, where they can recapture some of the potential of Frank and April’s youth. At first Frank is keen on the idea—he enjoys recalling the brilliance he remembers everyone once ascribing to him—but he starts to realise that maybe, after all, he’s happy in his job at IBM.

Revolutionary Road is a nearly-unbearable dissection of ambition and the role that it plays in a marriage. Frank and April are trapped by their work—at the office and in the home—but also frightened to acknowledge how much it has come to define who they are now.

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The second of three autobiographical novels, Youth follows young John as he graduates from the university of Cape Town and emigrates to London, where, like Frank in Revolutionary Road, he goes to work for IBM (this article should probably be called: Be Glad You Didn’t Work For IBM In The Nineteen-Sixties). John wants to be a poet, and he once envisaged London as a centre of world-culture, where he might meet sophisticated literary people—especially women. But instead he finds himself stuck at a desk, or, if he’s lucky, feeding punch-cards to a machine whose workings he barely comprehends. If he leaves punctually at five to write, his colleagues tut, and soon John is too anxious to do anything but work.

Coetzee captures with his characteristic clarity the dilemma of demanding work: that while work is supposed to support a life, it all too often ends up being your life.

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Diary of a Mad Housewife

Bettina Balser is buying herself a few moments’ respite from her daughters by filling their mouths with frozen custard when she sees a stack of notepads in a shop window, and decides to start a diary. “I knew the idea was right, was sound,” she explains, “because as I stood and stared at the pads, the tic in my eye suddenly stopped, the lump in my throat disappeared. A sign.”

Bettina has been driven mad by the tedium of housework and childcare, exacerbated by a husband who neither understands nor cares how difficult Bettina’s days are. Diary of a Mad Housewife is searingly honest about neurosis and guilt, and it’s also very witty. Kaufman’s novel can claim to be the mother of feminist classics like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and the grandmother of the comic confessional genre epitomized by Bridget Jones’s Diary

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.