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The Paradox of Caring About ‘Bullshit’ Jobs

a woman holding a folder up to her face in an office
Rae Russel/Getty

In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, the late anthropologist David Graeber described a particular type of employment: “If the position were eliminated, it would make no discernable difference in the world.” A bullshit job, he writes, is “so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good reason for him to be doing so.” This kind of worker abounds in American contemporary fiction, including Hilary Leichter’s Temporary and Halle Butler’s The New Me. The jobs are painfully dull and sometimes exploitative; the workers stuck in them are ambivalent and tend to tell their stories with a jagged, irony-tinged edge.  

Kikuko Tsumura’s novel There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job explores the same issue very differently. (Originally published in Japan in 2015, it has now been translated into English by Polly Barton.) The 36-year-old unnamed narrator, who has left her job of 10 years because of what she calls “burnout syndrome,” shows up at a temp agency and tells her recruiter that she is not interested in a meaningful job; she just wants an easy one.

So begins a series of mundane gigs: reviewing the surveillance tapes of a writer who rarely leaves his house, putting up PSA posters, writing radio advertisements to be aired on a bus route. At first, the work is described as exactly what Graeber would call a bullshit job: “It was weird because I worked such long hours, and yet, even while working, I was basically doing nothing.”

book cover of 'There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job'

But this is a portrait of a life filled with the vibrancy of exactly such nothingness. She finds herself treating every task and interaction with care. When she begins writing copy for a cracker company, she falls “head first into thoughts of rice cracker packets,” and as deadlines approach, the thought of submitting mediocre work upsets her, not because she is afraid of her boss but because it doesn’t seem like the honorable thing to do. Her thoughtfulness becomes more proactive, too. The poster job becomes an undercover mission to infiltrate a local organization; administrative work at a public park turns into a search operation for a man who has gone missing. It’s not clear whether those around her really need this much investment from her—in some cases, her employers are baffled by it. But making these sorts of commitments against ambivalence seems crucial to how she lives her life.

The narrator is, in some ways, a curious contemporary worker. She refuses to see her livelihood as either something to love or a form of exploitation. In her downtime at the park, she makes space for herself, taking long walks through the woods to study the grounds and meeting various characters who wander the property, searching for wild plants. Eventually, she notices the “unshakeable feeling” she got when she first developed burnout, of not wanting to work ever again, “gradually receding from my body,” and realizes the value of relinquishing some control. “You never knew what was going to happen,” she says. “You just had to give it your all, and hope for the best.”

Her sense of calm struck me as the flip side of Millie’s oft-quoted description of her office job in The New Me: “Back at my desk I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to come to this room and sit at this desk and slowly collect money.” Both characters recognize their inability to change their situation, and both are resigned to staying plugged into a system of work, but their temperamental differences reveal a wide range of what is possible, and what can be worthwhile, within that system.

If there’s a theory about labor that Tsumura seems to want to illustrate, it’s the dignity of work, whatever the job. This respect for the average, anonymous worker is fundamental to the narrator’s sense of self. Perhaps the disappearance of the jobs she cycles through would make no difference to the world. But to the narrator, if these positions had not been filled, an anxious man would still be roaming the forest, hiding from life; a mother and a daughter might not have bonded over a conversation while eating crackers.

In this, Tsumura’s story resists the economic determinism of the American office novel, which tends to draw attention to the deadening employment ecosystem its characters are a part of. Colleagues and bosses range from indifferent to mean to abusive, and co-worker friendships are typically predicated on mutual suffering. One of the pleasures of reading Tsumura is her focus, instead, on the care in ostensibly meaningless jobs. She treats boring, unextraordinary people in boring, unextraordinary jobs with an enchantment that many contemporary novels about work seem to actively avoid.

This enchantment stems in part from how curiously likable all of Tsumura’s characters are. To hold writing, especially writing by women, to a standard of likability can be dicey—but the popularization of disenchanted, bitter protagonists makes me wonder whether we now value too much the radicalism of unlikable characters.

Tsumura’s world is “nice”; it is insignificant in a powerful way. It is full of small huts, small convenience stores that stock one book at a time, small routines made up of the same amicable dinner conversations every day, bus routes that go round in circles, leaves on the trees “turning red and yellow at their own pace and rhythm.” There is charm in this monotony, but also unease, which is only sharpened by our awareness of how small meaning-making can be, or has to be, for any of us. In a life so wholly occupied with work, enchantment often has no option but to emerge from the trivial.

Office novels tend toward the ephemeral, delving into individual psyches rather than generational realities, occurring in real time rather than sprawling across lifetimes. The relatable boredom of such stories can make reading them feel a bit like being in a perpetual waiting room: A better life likely exists, but when will it unfurl? The unsettling genius of Tsumura’s narrator is that despite her string of tedious jobs, she comes closest to describing what a good life may actually look like: spending time searching for chestnuts and breadfruit in the forest, taking long walks around the city, gently drawing out souls who have squirreled themselves away from the world, finding the strange in the everyday.

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