“There comes a time in every man’s life when he wakes up drunk on the toilet and begins to doubt the choices he has made. And when that time comes at least twice a day, every day, something needs to be done.”
After a particularly revolting week at work, I decided I needed an attitude adjustment, so I returned to a book that made me laugh a lot a few years ago–Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. I had two goals: to laugh and to fine-tune my work mind-set to apathy–that glorious state of detachment.
This is the third reading of Apathy, and I found this book a few years ago thanks to a whole-hearted recommendation from Australian author Max Barry. I bought about a dozen copies as gifts and lent out my copy which resulted in a repurchase when it was not returned. Apathy‘s author has a blog: www.apathy.typepad.com/paulneilan/ and I’ve been hoping for a second novel (no pressure, Paul). Someone this funny deserves to be in print.
Shane, the hapless antihero of Apathy is a morally reprehensible man in his twenties–a slacker if you will. He isn’t as awful/evil/sick as the protagonist in Henry Sutton’s fantastic Get Me Out of Here–he’s no serial killer, but on the other hand, Shane doesn’t have a great deal to recommend him either. When Apathy begins, Shane is already deep in shit, and then the novel goes back in time to explain how Shane ended up naked, covered in salt and with two detectives calling him “partyboy” right before they accuse him of murder.
There are three women in Shane’s life. There’s Gwen, a woman with a long “life checklist” who’s a rather scary corporate climber within Panopticon Insurance. Shane meets Gwen in a bar and they embark on a relationship of sorts. Gwen sees sex as a challenging wrestling match:
Still, when it came to sex there’s always been the tacit understanding, or the pretense of the tacit understanding at least, that I’m in charge. That even if I’m not the guy in the back alley behind the dumpster, I’m at least some guy. A guy at least.
Not with Gwen. She manhandled me.
It was always a blur of pain and fear and domination. I remembered it, and could only deal with it afterwards, as a collection of warped polaroids stapled to the inside of my head.
Then there’s Marlene, the married deaf dental assistant with a penchant for karaoke. And the third woman in Shane’s life is the laconic wife of Shane’s landlord, Bryce. Shane can’t make the rent and so he reaches a tentative non-verbal agreement with Bryce for a break in the rent in exchange for services. Let’s call it rent-subsidized sex. Or is it sex-subsidized rent?
Here’s Shane’s landlord, Bryce:
Bryce was tall, about my height but built, with tattoos twisting all the way up his arms, snakes and hearts and daggers and all kinds of shit. He had a drawn, lean face and the transparent remains of a thinning rockabilly pompadour still clinging to his head. He’d probably been in a band a few years ago, bought into the entire scene, but it hadn’t worked out. And now he was stuck with the cigarettes and the sideburns and all those fucking Stray Cat albums.
While the characterisations are well-drawn and very funny, it’s the glimpse of corporate culture that brings the biggest laughs. Gwen, deciding that she’s Shane’s girlfriend and that all he needs is a shove in the right direction, gets Shane a demeaning job as a temp at Panopticon. She’s under the impression that if he’s given a jumpstart and conditioned, Shane can be rehabilitated into an admirable cog in the corporate machine. But like everyone else in the novel, she underestimates the power of apathy. Actually she misinterprets Shane’s apathy as “independence.” Big mistake.
So under Gwen’s recommendation, Shane finds himself working as a temp. His goal is to do nothing and to collect a paycheck for as long as possible. He spends most of his work days sleeping on the toilet, and when he’s in his cubicle, he devotes hours to creating paper clip nooses and miniature gallows:
Nobody there hated their job nearly as much as they should have. That always bothered me. I heard them complain sometimes, but it was the ineffectual bitching of people who didn’t expect anything about their situation to ever change, and who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if it did. They were all older, rounder, more compromised versions of each other, all of them middle-aged, if not in years in appearance and aspiration. It was like time-release photography of humanity in slow decline. The mushroom cloud was Hawaiian shirt day. It was depressing to picture the new girl, with her bright scarves and flipping hair thinking she was only going to be there until she found another job at a non-profit, ten years later wearing a business suit and white sneakers as she power-walked around the building on her half-hour lunch break.
In spite of the fact that Shane spends most of his days on the toilet, he has a canny eye when it comes to grasping the peculiarities of corporate life. He notes that people go to desperate lengths to personalise their cubicles, but to Shane one of the most nauseating facets of Panopticon is the morale-boosting area called “Inspiration Alley” :
And whenever I thought I was being too hard on them, I remembered Inspiration Alley. There was proof that nice, well-meaning people would politely and eventually rob the rest of us of any reason to live. Inspiration Alley was a row of cubicles stretching from the boss’s double-cube office to the inner walkway around the elevators, and it was lined with quotations.
And there are examples of quotes including such nonsensical gibberish as this:
I looked around waiting for someone to do something. Then I realized that I was someone.
As with most comic fiction, some of the jokes misfire, and for its crude and decidedly un-PC elements, Apathy is certainly not for the easily offended. And now, dear reader, renewed and inspired by Shane’s example, I’m off to build that paper clip noose.