by Steve Tomasula
Being practical has always seemed a monstrous thing, Oscar Wilde once said, and Stacy Levine's new novel does a lot to prove he was right. Here is a world of workers in an industrialscape reminiscent of Eraserhead: it is dreamlike, if you dream in drab; the technology is monumental and spelled with a small 't'—oil-sweating planes fly indoors—even work songs are “outmoded”; people are synonymous with their function. That is, Dra— lays bare the secret of even the brightest resume: the diminishment inherent in making oneself fit into a system, a pattern, an expectation.
This paradox of erasing the self in order to survive gnaws unconsciously within Dra—, our heroine. She spends the first third of the book wracked by the sensation that though the whole world is getting a job, there is nothing for her. When she finally reaches the source of jobs, she finds a room full of people sitting on toilets and reading newspapers. Here Dra— gets her chance: a choice of jobs, actually, between classifying dust and monitoring a small water pump. Ultimately, the water-pump job is assigned to her and the remainder of the book is devoted to Dra—'s journey through this cavernous factory/office to report to work.
As in The Stranger or Waiting for the Barbarians, the narrative in this slim novel of ideas is archetypal, even iconographic: webs of associations are triggered by the “dank Employee Tunnel,” the school room originally “designed to be a furnace,” and the trains and toilets of Dra— (Freud resonates loudly). Walking down a corridor of the Employment Agency, Dra— believes it to be the same corridor that ran through her former grade school with its “clamoring upset students, long mottoes and teachers grown so furious that they vanished.” Parable-like language like this makes it easy for a reader to fall into reflective pauses, sometimes at the end of every sentence. What generally comes to mind are the habits of thought we sublimate in order to live with ourselves, especially “choices” that have become a kind of nature with narrowly defined paths, be they specific to gender, class, occupation, or any of the other markers we use to identify ourselves and categorize others. In Dra—, the refusal to choose or an inability to discern difference is an invitation to histrionics, recriminations, and lectures. When Dra— is distraught because she can't find her Administrator, a co-worker says, “She's probably dead and you'll be assigned another. Why make faces over it?” Why indeed, since politeness is considered a remnant from ancient times when “dogs smiled to signify deference.”
To get a sense of how such a tale of dread and loathing can be as funny as this one, though, consider the absurdity of Gregor Samsa worrying about being late for work the morning he's become an enormous bug. Similarly, Dra— finds herself enacting the vaudeville routine of the employee ordered to box pies as they come off an assembly line. Of course, the line begins to move faster than she can negotiate, only instead of pies, Dra—'s task is to get canisters into a pneumatic slot. And instead of splashing meringue, she contaminates herself with their toxic contents. Then she discovers that a man has been watching her the whole time, laughing.
Surely, this scene is enacted daily in the world outside the book. Just turn on any TV news show and join in. But we don't want to think about it. Or as another “friend” tells her, “jobs are tedious and death making” but “we're much too busy to have time for those thoughts”—a self-fulfilling prophecy that many people take refuge in (Levine should center another novel on “hobbies”), especially when we consider how easy it is to treat tollbooth attendants and other functionaries as animated vending machines. Like Camus and Kafka before her, Levine uses the self in relation to society to crack the oppressive ordinariness of normalcy—and this may be the book's one distraction: it so strongly evokes these antecedents that it's hard to read Dra— free of their ghosts. Still, if a comparison to Camus seems like faint damnation, that's how it's intended. Like those philosophical works, the achievement of Dra— is in its universals; Levine has managed to depict something everyone knows and everyone loathes in a style that mimics the very file-cabinet blandness of her subject, yet still makes for compelling fiction. More importantly, she's written a parable of America where the average citizen won't likely enter into the absurdity of a Kafkaesque trial but can't avoid the more subtle, spirit-crushing normalcy that would have us see a choice between MCI and AT&T as an expression of individuality.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997