The workplace is a kind of parallel universe. We find a fulfilment there that is separate from our personal lives. But we also prune ourselves, speaking in a different register, and dressing in a certain way. We have a ‘work self’.
This duality is what Sarah Rose Etter zeroes in on in her new novel Ripe, a nightmarish depiction of the life of a Silicon Valley worker. Cassie, the protagonist, is oppressed by a perennial dark mood that is aggravated by work stress, her climbing rent bill, and the horrors of a fraying San Francisco. But whenever she is called upon to interact at the office, a persona she calls her “false self” takes over, a caricature of corporate allegiance. To thank a colleague for a gift, she visualises, “the gratitude of another woman, a vegan woman who does hot yoga and embraces technology and start-ups and wears the logo with pride”.
She refers to the rest of the tech workforce as “believers”, certain they must be more committed to the industry grind than she. As Anna Wiener identified in her tech memoir Uncanny Valley – a book whose influence is evident in Ripe – being “Down for the Cause” is a necessity in startup culture.
The work at Cassie’s company is long and strictly on-site. Home-working is not tolerated. One colleague even lives in a mobile home in the office parking lot, a detail that at first seems an indictment of the San Francisco housing crisis, but later reveals itself as a sign of the character’s cult-like dedication to the company.
But the book sets a deadline on this kind of culture by alluding to the early signs of the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, it signals the end of the office novel as we know it.
That novel has, for the last few years, looked decidedly surreal. Look at the sci-fi approach taken in Danish writer Olga Ravn’s The Employees, where a workplace implodes when relations between human and android workers break down. Or the magical realist approach taken in Japanese fiction like Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job or Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void, where the disruptive effect of work on a young worker’s life becomes a distortion of reality itself. In the modern workplace novel, work dissatisfaction inflates into all-consuming questions about the self and existence, about the character’s perception of the world around them.
Ripe is no exception. Cassie describes a black hole which accompanies her everywhere, a metaphor made manifest. She never questions whether it’s real, accepting it just as she does the unreasonable demands made by her bosses. Something has to change, and the reader knows that it will as soon as the pandemic takes hold – though not necessarily for the better.
The book stops short of examining the remote work revolution, instead leaving us with the bitter aftertaste of 2010’s tech culture and all the ways it influenced working culture at large. Where, then, can the office novel go after this, when the office itself is no longer a given?
There’s a chance the genre will slip further into the fantastical and absurd; Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing, about an employee whose consciousness is accidentally uploaded to a Slack server, offered a glimpse of that path. But by its final chapter, Ripe, with its recurring imagery of fruit and Cassie’s preoccupation with her body, suggests another direction: a rejection of the inorganic, inhuman elements of work, a Great Resignation from the office novel’s nightmare of unreality.
Alys Key is a writer and freelance journalist. You can find her on X (formerly known as Twitter).
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