Life and Work

Philip Horne

Life and work are in the happiest relation when the life comfortably includes the work; the relation becomes unhappy when the work threatens to preclude the life. Then we have a competition between the demands of work and the duties of the domestic life, or the impulses of the inner life. The competition may be a matter of man-hours or of values, or both: at any rate the division, once established, exposes the individual to stress. Wemmick in Great Expectations has expressed his siege mentality in his moated home, a refuge from the Jaggers law-work: ‘the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me.’ Wemmick’s chiasmus reflects the two selves he has contrived for his places of abode and work; he does his job well, working as a different person with a different expression on his face. Melville’s Bartleby, in contrast, a few years earlier, quite withdraws his labour – also legal in character – and goes with mysterious politeness to a death in the New York Tombs: an enigmatic martyr, he seems to suffer from some perception which makes intolerable to him his probably emblematic task of copying.

Nicholas Salaman’s heroine Charlet, ‘falling apart’ in his new novel, has more to do with up-to-the-minute advertising copy than with 19th-century legal scrivening, and is neither a survivor like Wemmick, nor a martyr like Bartleby, but a victim without dignity, a double failure. Wemmick’s moat is a constructed, defensive barrier with a proper draw-bridge to cross by; the chasm in Falling apart between Charlet’s crumbling suburban family and her marketing work in the City as a Brand Manager for Fastfoods is, at least by the time the novel begins, vertiginously difficult to manage. ‘She was treading a rope, she knew; the two halves of her life were ultimately irreconcilable.’ In the course of the book Charlet topples into this abyss.

The satirical pointing is adept; Salaman knows the world of marketing and advertising from the inside, and is cunning in his invention of the important new product which the deluded Charlet pays with body and conscience to have the chance of failing with: ‘Nut Puffs’. This is the latest emanation of the Fastfoods ‘bubble concept’: that

Bubbles are made of air. Air costs nothing. Surround your bubbles with a crispy crackly snappy integument and what do you have? A great big profit on every bag you sell.

Fastfoods, then, is a business built around and concealing a vacuum; and the novel takes place round this central emptiness. The company is all the more competitive for its delusive basis, and Charlet competes as much as anyone. She has lovers, a City love-nest, and no desire greater than to rise in the firm. Even when she’s well on the way to cracking up, a success at work carries her back to the company ethic: ‘she suddenly found again that the bubble meant more to her than anything else.’ But disaster brings a mad solipsistic despair in which the product controls their lives: ‘they were all in airtight sacs.’ Salaman puns on Charlet’s bubble; collapsing, she has ‘a certain puffiness around the eyes’, and goes nuts. She has, moreover, a probably paranoid notion that Nut Puffs contain an additive called Copulin, responsible for ‘the whole office ... fizzing with lust’ and presumably for her own sexual cravings.

Falling apart is a clever and disturbing novel, but its power is limited by an excess of contrivance. The image of the abyss, for example, comes up as an office lift-shaft occupied by a crazed liftman, as Etna, and as the mouths looked down by its narrator, an eccentric and too-whimsical dentist who is taking care of Charlet. This dentist-narrator introduces himself in a ‘Prologue’, not plausibly, as telling us the story while he works on our teeth, doing ‘reconstructive treatment’; he has been told most of it by Charlet, who is sitting shattered in the flat above his surgery, and he ‘will occasionally fill in with a little guesswork as and when it seems necessary’. Since we only really find out anything about the narrator in the second part, this twofold complication of variables tends to inhibit the reader’s sense of the subject. It serves no function in terms of plausibility, since the dentist is an incredibly over-mannered literary fabrication, and little in terms of characterisation, since the dentist tells Charlet’s story punchily, like an impersonal novelist, and without sufficient personal inflection. The book’s contract with the reader seems to have too much small print that is then not fully invoked; it would be more forceful if it had fewer modernistic get-out clauses. These may be related to the book’s imaginative indebtedness to another work disgusted at promiscuous sex in the City, The Waste Land (it directly alludes to it, with, for example ‘Do you remember nothing?’ and some sex ‘enacted on this same divan’). Eliot’s poem, too, sets a puzzling battery of personae between itself and its author: but there the deflections of voice potently coincide with a multiplication of narrative fragments. Falling apart sticks too fast to its main story to need, and thus justify, its fussy apparatus.

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