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July 2, 2008

Book Notes - Ed Park ("Personal Days")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I picked up Personal Days with great expectations. Written by Ed Park, founding editor of The Believer, the book has garnered rave reviews and has been recommended by more friends than I can count. The book has been compared to both Nicholas Baker's 1990 novel The Mezzanine and television's The Office, but neither does the book justice.

Personal Days is the cubicle bible for our times, a wickedly funny (and often too true) satire of office life.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"Park portrays Thoreau's quote about the masses leading "lives of quiet desperation" as urban satire for the dot-com generation. It's a satire at times so droll, so trenchant in its observations of corporate "culture" and human weakness, so pitch-perfect in dialogue, you can't help but feel for the author. Maybe he's a mind reader, or one of those writers so creative that concepts just spring from the head fully formed. But chances are, Park (who writes a monthly online science fiction column for the L.A. Times Book Review) drew from personal experience of really lousy jobs to create this bitter, pathetic world that makes you snort your Starbucks when laughing at unexpected moments."

In his own words, here is Ed Park's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, Personal Days:


"Answer me," begins New Order's "Run," the song that threaded itself through my head during my last months at my old job. "Why won't you answer me?"

I liked New Order as a teenager; 1989's Technique (on which "Run" makes its home) was the last album of theirs to hold my interest. Now that song was in heavy mental rotation, as it never had been before, outlasting all the theoretically more exciting youngbloods. I want to find out why.

In 2006, things were going downhill at the office and everyone knew it. People were jumping ship at alarming rates; more alarming was the number forced to jump. "Run" isn't quite an office song—not the way Fountains of Wayne's "Hey Julie" ("I've got a desk full of paper that means nothing at all") or the Modern Lovers' "Government Center" ("a lotta lotta lotta nice desks and chairs, uh huh!") are explicitly about the joys and terrors of the workaday word.

But "Run" was my theme song, and I didn't even know what it meant. It has the virtue of being intimate yet ambiguous, and the music is a thrilling mix of guitars and machines. Even the title is up for grabs: a directive to flee, or simply to hit the treadmill? The lyrics are among the most potent in the New Order canon, admittedly a songbook in which much sounds tossed off (a trait I admire).

Maybe it takes fifteen years of not hearing the song—of being swept along by the airtight weave, or not thinking about it at all—but "Run," I'm realizing, is a horror story of sorts, an incident of amnesia in the corridors of power: "I don't know what day it is or who I'm talking to." It's not far from there to the land of This is not my beautiful house/This is not my beautiful wife. "I can't recall the day that I last spoke to you." A guitar figure just this side of sour tears through it all again and again. There is tremendous violence—and freedom—in this line: "You work your way to the top of the world/Then you break your life in two."

The epigraph to Personal Days comes from "Run"; that last couplet seemed appropriate for a book in which the brutality of downsizing was dramatized in the broken structure itself—the voice changing, dramatically, twice.

The penultimate verse seems to hold a measure of hope—"I haven't got a single problem now that I'm with you"—but do we believe the speaker? (The last line, tellingly, is "What do you want me to believe?")

I'm getting the sinking feeling that the singer is talking to a ghost—or the singer is a ghost, just like in New Order's story-song "Love Vigilantes."

Without giving too much of Personal Days away, I'll just say that the idea of the ghost in the machine is significant, if not central to the novel. Quick sample from the book: "Our machines know more than we do, Pru thinks. Even their deficiencies and failures are instructive...."

New thought about the title: Is "Run" a command for a computer—or from one? And what is the program?


Other office songs:
"Frankly, Mr Shankly," The Smiths
"These Are the Dreams of the Working Girl," Comet Gain
"Going Underground," The Jam — adds drama to the commute
"Welcome to the Newsroom," Paul Smith
"9 to 5," Dolly Parton ("Pour myself a cup of ambition")
Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" b/w XTC's "Earn Enough for Us" ("I'm just praying by the weekend/I can earn enough for us")

Ed Park and Personal Days links:

the author's website
the author's collaborative Beatles blog
the author's band
the author's band's music (1)
the author's band's music (2)
the author's Wikipedia entry
the author's book tour events
the author's page at the publisher
the author's collaborative blog
the book's blog
excerpt from the book

Austin Chronicle review
Baltimore Sun review
Barnes and Noble review
The Bookbag review
Bookforum review
Daily Mail review
Dayton Daily News review
Flavorpill review
Guardian review
L magazine review
The List review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Observer review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Newsweek review
Observer review
Oregonian review
Publishers Weekly review
San Diego Union-Tribune review
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review
Stop Smiling review
Times Online review
Time Out New York review
Village Voice review
WFMU - Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything show featuring the book
Wired review

Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
Five Chapters short fiction by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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