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Published: Saturday, 10/11/2008

Author's technique derails promising debut novel

BY ERIKA RAY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

I've heard the phrase dozens of times and even said it out loud to others but can't seem to regularly put it into practice.

More often than I'd prefer, I'll ignore the idiom 'never judge a book by its cover' when I spot a novel that simply looks appealing, even when it comes with a title or author I've never heard of before.

Sometimes it pays off. Other times, like in the case of Ed Park's

Personal Days, each turn of the page brings more regret for the decision to pick up a book simply based on cosmetic reasons.

The writer in me instantly loved the clever way Park placed the letters of his name and title of his debut novel over the keys of a computer keyboard.

Even more promising was that the premise of the book showed real potential: A bunch of office drones who rarely seem to do any real work at an unnamed Manhattan corporation start becoming antsy when one of them is called at home and the layoffs begin, involving something called Operation JASON.

Though staff members loathe their jobs, they shudder at the thought of losing them. It immediately conjured up scenes from the hilarious movie Office Space, starring Ron Livingston.

But Personal Days has pockets of promise that just turn up empty.

All the necessary characters are there: the clueless and ostensibly inept bosses, the bombshell, the spreadsheet drone, etc., but only a few actually are developed as the story progresses. Others are let go before readers get a chance to care if they stick around.

Thrown into the mix is the fact that most of the novel's characters have a name beginning with the letter 'J.' There's Jonah, Jenny, Jill, Jason, Jules, and three Jacks, whom the employees dub Original Jack, Jack II, and Jack III, also known as The Unnameable. Not surprisingly, it becomes nearly impossible to keep track of them all, and tedious to flip back to recall who has been fired or whose story lines have simply faded into the background.

But it isn't just the pawn-like characters that come up short, leaving a reader wanting more.

Sticking with the computer metaphor, the novel unfolds in three sections, 'Can't Undo,' 'Replace All,' and 'Revert to Saved,' which are familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft Word, but relatively irrelevant in terms of the story.

Each of the three parts is organized differently in its own unique but irritating voice and typesetting, making the novel more difficult to read as it progressed.

The first part is written in short, staccato paragraphs describing arbitrary office anecdotes. In three paragraphs, we learn that all the characters play the lottery individually, one aspires to be a househusband, and the books on the boss' shelf in his office include a thesaurus and two dictionaries. Though it features a nameless narrator, the first third of the book is essentially plotless, which hampers any character development.

Plot comes in the second section, when the 'we' narration becomes 'they,' but the paragraphs are arranged using Roman numerals, which unnecessarily distracts the reader from the plot.

But Personal Days does have a story line that delves into the mystery of who may get fired next.

The workers spend their days avoiding work in favor of dissecting each desk reassignment and each meeting with the boss. They also often discuss the new character introduced early in the second section, Graham. He's known to the office peons as Grime because that's how his name sounds through his thick British accent. No one knows exactly what he does at the firm, but avoiding the spoiler he turns out to be more than he seems.

Though the third section essentially solves the mysterious office politics that had been transpiring, the explanation is completely absurd and muddled in an agonizingly long e-mail from a secondary character to one more central to the story.

Because the period key on the character's keyboard wasn't working, the e-mail winds up being 48 pages of text squeezed into a single run-on sentence to end the novel.

After digging out of the final section of the book, and looking at its cover with eyes that have arduously read this bizarre tale, it's tough to remember why it was so alluring in the first place.



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