Book Review

If you are someone who writes or makes art, then it’s possible your work life (your existence) is bifurcated: your real job and your day job, so-called. The eruptions of your imagination vs. its interruptions (marked by, as the poet Anne Boyer describes, “this one $ and that one </3”). The time your employer takes from you vs. the time you take from your employer.

And a happy ending to this double life would mean what? Success in the marketplace? Wouldn’t that economic success also signal a kind of death? You might open Mónica de la Torre’s new book, The Happy End / All Welcome, looking for answers. Certainly, she is writing about jobs. Capitalism. The manipulative language of marketing. Artist as employee. Employee as artist. The colorlessness of the future. What is the “happy end?!”

In one sense, she’s referring to the last chapter of the Kafka novel Amerika. The hapless immigrant Karl encounters the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and attends its giant (infinite?) job fair. The invitation to this fair comprises the first page of de la Torre’s book:

All are welcome!

Anyone who wants to become an artist should contact us!

Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward!

We can make use of everyone, each in their place!

We have a place for everyone, everyone in their place!

Anyone thinking of their future belongs in our midst!

Anyone thinking of their future, your place is with us!

And we congratulate here and now those who have decided in our favor!

If you decide to join us, we congratulate you here and now!

In a book where nothing has really worked out for Karl, why should this? Still, lured by the “all are welcome” decree, he joins the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, and the book ends with him en route to a possible job, in a mood of jovial befuddlement. Because Amerika was Kafka’s first novel, one he left deliberately unfinished, isn’t the possibility of a happy conclusion due only to the lack of conclusion?

Then there’s the second significant source of The Happy End / All Welcome: Martin Kippenberger’s installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’. Imagine an indoor soccer field, lined with bright green turf and dotted by strange sculptures, desks, and chairs. In a series of poems, de la Torre fills Kippenberger’s chairs (lifeguard, folding, monobloc, Aeron, Utrecht, and more) with the body of her subject, a furniture tester, who tries out “available positions”—bodily, or corporate, or both. In “View from a Management Chair,” the subject gazes at her cubicle’s paneling, trying to discern the type of wood:

With no basis except for its blondeness, in such issues a received knower
without ever before having considered the matter, the guess

with regard to the source genus is that it’s oak, birch, or hard maple.
Without any of those trees native to the region, though, it’s up in the air.

With nothing else competing for the retina’s attention,
without any visual input other than the panels’ loopy growth rings,

with only a keyboard in sight, a lamp, a flower-patterned tissue box, and scraps,
without being a dendrochronologist, time is the one thing to manage.

If you take the “Happy End” in his title unironically, Kippenberger’s replica of this job fair could be seen as a paean to universal employment. (Wouldn’t that be something?) (It’s happening in Finland!) But de la Torre’s spacious book feels more absurd than idealistic.

The essential subject matter is heavy—but how lightly she maneuvers through it, swiveling around in her poet chair, using different perspectives and logic to undermine (but not to escape!) the realities of bureaucracy and marketing. Her modes include interviews, typing tests, questionnaires, found text of real job openings, case studies and, in a witty nod to the book’s obsession with chairs, the orderly arrangements of data we call tables. The book glosses itself periodically in poems titled “Ad Copy,” which function effectively as marketing text for The Happy End / All Welcome and, by calling attention to the commercial nature of poetry book blurbs, obliterate them.

De la Torre begins where Kafka leaves off: an immigrant at a job interview. The candidate is hired not despite of her lack of fluency (“My English is no native so apologies for everyone”) but because of it. A stage direction explains that the recruiter “remembers the orientation session in which talent scouts were told to employ, at the drop of a hat, anyone whose use of language might increase activity in audiences’ corrugator muscles or do the opposite, prompting zygomatic tension.” That is, the interviewee’s syntactic idiosyncrasies are more likely to prompt smiling and frowning in an audience—one of many words here whose semantics pivot between the theatrical, consumer, interview, and poetry readership senses. This makes it tempting, but ultimately much too reductive, to read this work as political commentary on the art world, or capitalism, or both.

Really, de la Torre’s book is a love letter to the imagination—a paean to what remains uneven in uniform office environments, what rings out of tune even when one is reading from a script. “Gooooooooooooooooooooal!” shouts an assistant director into a megaphone. That’s the entirety of page 112. Alright, a target is met. Yet after a short poem of anagrams a few pages earlier (“IDHSELZ/PFMORRE/UTNTLIO/BNAAANS/UTTFIAW/WKEDYAE…”), the mind is primed to make an anagram of goalGaol! Hearing “goal” as “jail” is not a stretch in a book this sly and playful. The reader is required to play, too—to riff, to malapropize, to slapstick. De la Torre’s aim, as Wittgenstein once put it, may be “to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to patent nonsense.” The disguised nonsense is of course office work and the art world. An example of latent nonsense? Contemplating temporality from a dodo chair: “…the days of sitting around seem extinct. // Now it’s all a go-go. No need to go into it; who doesn’t know the feeling? // The dodo, maybe?”

Is the happy end what Martin Esslin, in describing the Theatre of the Absurd, called “the laughter of liberation?” No matter how many hours we may be chained to our office chair, no matter our posture in it, or how Sisyphusean our work life may seem, our imagination is a small and gleeful subversion taking place under the glare of the office gods. Camus ends his essay on the absurdist hero exhorting the contemplation of Sisyphus’s fate: “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile… One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


About the Reviewer

Darcie Dennigan is the author of The Parking Lot and other feral scenarios, forthcoming from Forklift Ohio in 2018. She's also working on the libretto for an opera version of Knut Hamsun's Hunger.