Reader G writes:
I was thinking about your fondness for what you call “epiphanies,” that moment you said when one foot is on the train and the other foot is on the platform. I remember mine and you’re welcome to it.
I was photocopying something in the office and for some reason it had to be done with the lid open. The light that goes back and forth was gradually blinding me in a very particular way. I could still see the motion of the yellowish light when I closed my eyes.
The whole thing lulled me into a hypnotic state, at which point I knew something was wrong. I forced myself to snap out of it, not just for the sake of this moment but forever. I carried my notice around in my pocket for a few weeks and finally signed it, dated it, and handed it to my boss’s PA. I was free.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata is a very enjoyable novel about the experience of being an outsider.
The characters believe themselves to be aliens since the demands of society–tolerated or enjoyed by seemingly everyone else–feel too great. The main character, Natsuki, is afraid of sex and reproduction. Her husband doesn’t like sex either and also hates going to work.
Before we go any further I should explain that these characters are not exactly role models for Escapologists: they’re darkly messed up and the way things end for them is… insane.
(I kept flipping to the author photograph on the flyleaf. This came out of you? The cute hedgehog on the cover is a complete swizz designed to disarm you before its attack.)
Crazy it all may be, but the following moments of alienation are probably relatable:
Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory
“The Factory” is what they call society. They see themselves as “tools” of the Factory, that they’re expected to work and breed in its service.
Our “aliens” escape in a very limited way and we get the kind of epiphany-like simple sentence I always love:
From the next day, our way of life changed completely.
And then they discuss their new life on the lam, which feels decidedly Escapological:
Yuu was still a little anxious. “But what are we going to do from now on? We might very much be Popinpobopians now, but to stay alive we need to rely on Earthling knowledge. And if we keep doing that we might become Earthlings, mightn’t we?”
“We’ll have to think about it. Staying alive is about coming up with ideas. Living on the ideas that we come up with.” My husband frowned and sniffed.
“Yes. Not imitating the Earthlings but coming up with our own ideas for living. That’s how we can live on a planet that isn’t our own.”
I’m editing a book at the moment (it’s this one – and do pre-order if it sounds good to you) in which author John Robinson nicely puts his finger on what I hate about television:
There’s a clichéd storyline you often see in television adverts: a man gets insurance for his car, you see him and his girlfriend buying a home, you see her pregnant, then with a child, then the child grows older and requires its own car and insurance. It’s a circle-of-life story often used to indicate the permanent necessity of brand loyalty, of commerce and capitalism: a depressing indication that we are trapped on a wheel, ground into society. It’s a literal statement that our purpose is purely to consume and procreate. Of course, these adverts show only heterosexual couples, because they are the grist to that mill. The fact that gay couples can adopt does not fit the template the advertiser desires: there remains an ingrained bias towards heteronormativity.
Yes! I know exactly the sort of advert John means. I can’t name the company behind the advert or even if there was any one advert that told precisely this story, but it nails the tone of an entire patronising wave of shithouse commercials you can see on mainstream telly.
And it’s not just in the adverts: it’s baked into the media, this up-propping of the passive suburban non-culture that facilitates the mass-milking of human beings for fun and profit.
In moments of human weakness, I occasionally stream an ITV game show called The Chase. It’s a good quiz because the multiple choice questions comes thick and fast so it’s easy to play along at home, stroking the chin and shouting out the answers.
But the shit the host comes out with! And the one-dimensional propagandic drivel you see in the ad breaks. The ads don’t just tell you what to buy: they tell you the way to be. Men are like this, women are like, and on and on.
It’s a window into how the powerful want us to be: don’t think, it’s cute to be a dafty, love the Royal Family, buy stuff, eat cake, vote Tory, don’t criticise, car go vroom-vroom, remember to replace yourself with another consumer on the way out, cheers. It almost makes me hate humanity. Which is why it’s best not to watch it.
Protect your brain! Throw away your TV, for it is a portal of toxic slurry!
Unstick yourself from that wheel. Be like Victor Hugo instead.
James, a 31-year-old in Glasgow, had always worked hard, from striving for a first at university to working until 8pm or 9pm at the office in the civil service in the hopes of getting noticed. But during lockdown in 2020, James had an epiphany about what he valued in life when reading the book Bullshit Jobs by the anthropologist David Graeber. “He talks a lot about how jobs that provide social utility are generally pay-poor while the inverse are paid more,” James says.
Hooray! Graeber’s legacy lives on. His message was heard. Meanwhile, New Escapologist (and the Idler and others) will continue to chip away at grind culture and the Protestant Work Ethic from the sidelines.
[James] now focuses on his life, putting his phone on aeroplane mode while doing activities such as hiking, reading and watching films. “I still value work, I’m very committed to my position. But I’ve just realised that this myth a lot of millennials were told – graft, graft, graft and you’ll always get what you want – isn’t necessarily true,” James says. “It’s a reprioritisation.”
The Guardian reports that young people are ditching “overtime and excess work stress” in favour of “family and fun.” Good news if true.
When Molly, 35, was growing up, she remembers the message of “work hard and you’ll get rewarded” being drilled into her by parents and schoolteachers. As a result, she spent her early career putting in the hours. But when she had a child and sought a flexible work pattern at her professional services job, the company denied her request. “I was replaceable,” she says. “I was very much a cog in the machine.”
I always enjoy hearing about the epiphany. I collect epiphanies: the memorable moment, perhaps with one foot in the commuter carriage and the other still on the platform, when a person snaps and says “no more” and “there are other worlds than these.”
This said, I’m always amazed that it takes such an existential shock as having a child or getting ill to discover that “work hard and you’ll get rewarded” is bollocks.
The most “rewarded” in our society have not worked hard for it: they’ve usually inherited their wealth in some way or were born into the sort of privilege that results in playing the game on easy mode, or else they’ve done something clever and/or immoral. There are exceptions, of course, and the media is all too happy to spotlight them to prop up the myth of meritocracy.
Meanwhile, people who work hard are usually hospital porters or cleaners or the hardhats who maintain railway lines at night. They bust a gut and aren’t rewarded for it beyond the essential basics that will keep them coming back to work. Some of them die at work.
These twin observations–that the rewarded do not work hard and the hard-working are not rewarded–are as plain as day. You shouldn’t need a baby or a tumour to come along to shock you into sense. Then again, we get the “work hard and you’ll get rewarded” message on all sides, don’t we? From parents and teachers and colleagues and bosses and the television. It’s insidious and it’s everywhere. It’s called the Protestant Work Ethic and it’s a scam.
Molly is one of many in her generation readjusting their work-life balance to focus less on their job. Research published this month from King’s College London based on surveys from 24 countries found that just 14% of UK millennials (people born from the early 80s to mid 90s) believe work should always come first, compared with 41% in 2009.
So maybe it is true. Good news indeed.
Here’s a fun word I haven’t come across before: perruque. It means to pilfer time or surplus resources from work.
It’s not in either of Glenn’s Glossaries, which is probably forgivable since I found it in an essay called “18 Semiconnected Thoughts on Michel de Certeau, On Kawara, Fly Fishing, and Various Other Things,” which some might say is off the beaten track.
It comes up when the essayist, Tom McCarthy, is talking about Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, a 1974 book about the ways in which people personalise or adapt what the built environment gives them. (To give you a better idea of what this means, the cover usually shows an image of desire lines).
Perruque is when the little guy, the worker, does something for his own ends under the guise of obediently serving his employer. When a cabinet maker uses a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room, that’s perruque; so is when a market researcher or ad agency employee abandons himself to reverie for half an hour. Whacking off on the boss’s time.
I mention this excitedly to my wife who says perruque is the French for “wig.” What would that have to do with this? I ask, meaning etymologically. “Subterfuge,” she says.
(We laugh because of a moment we remember in Samuel Pepys’ Diary in which Pepys, noticing a fashion for powdered wigs, has a wig made of his own hair and passes it off as real for his own amusement; as well as being delightfully puerile and containing the idea of Pepys being blissfully unaware of everyone around him saying “hark at Sam wearing a wig of his own hair,” he has spectacularly missed the point that wig-wearing was supposed to be conspicuous).
Samara, ever brilliant, owns a copy of The Practice of Everyday Life so we pluck it from the shelf and find she earmarked the page about perruque years ago.
The example of the cabinet maker is right here in de Certeau (a bit lazy, McCarthy). He also provides the lovelier example of “a secretary’s writing a love letter on company time.”
Accused of stealing or turning material to his own ends and using the machines for his own profit, the worker who indulges in la perruque actually diverts time (not goods, since he uses only scraps) from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit. In the very place where the machine he must serve reigns supreme, he cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous pro-ducts whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers or his family through spending his time in this way. With the complicity of other workers (who thus defeat the competition the factory tries to instil among them), he succeeds in “putting one over” on the established order on its home ground.
A very fine example of sticking it to The Man. It’s also an example of what I once described as “escaping the Holodeck using holographic tools.” You mustn’t feel bad about perruch. You owe your escape to the greater good and it’s no fault of yours if the captor has left some handy holographic shovels and power drills lying around.
New Escapologist was originally a perruch project of sorts: blog entries pecked out on company time and a pilot issue printed on A4 stolen from temp jobs (as apparently was Processed World, another magazine about office confinement).
My tastes are aristocratic, my actions democratic.
Thus spake Victor Hugo, writer of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and many, many other beautiful novels.
He reminds us that we can enjoy rarefied art and culture without being assholes about it.
It’s about time I told you — the readers of New Escapologist — about my novel(s).
It wasn’t supposed to be “an Escapological novel” but it sort-of is. It’s certainly about the indignities of wage labour.
I was keen to avoid this being about office life, so our hero’s job ended up being on trains. He cleans seat-back trays and collects rubbish and unblocks toilets on long-distance trains from Edinburgh to London. He doesn’t live in either of those cities though, so his commute to work also involves trains and, as such, he spends a sizable part of his life on them. He’s not even sure sometimes if he’s working or commuting (a feeling familiar to many since even the longest commute is not typically remunerated: vast swathes of human life being spent in lurching transit is just a cost of doing business).
A colleague eventually tells our man that his problems might stem from his odour problem! He’s smelly, in large part because of his exertions. And so he embarks on a voyage of self-improvement (“Getting Better” he calls it), which starts with luxurious soaks in the tub. It’s not just about being smelly or unsmelly: it’s about taking care of yourself more generally, slowing down, taking the time to think.
Our man’s problem isn’t really his smelliness at all in fact. He’s the victim of a hundred years of decision-making for which he wasn’t present. Choices made in the Industrial Revolution dictate how he must spend his days now. He doesn’t want to believe in Fatalism but the more he mulls over his problems, the better he comes to understand that his place in history is as much to blame for his predicament as anything he’s done wrong himself.
This is the Escapological crux of it all. I didn’t know I was writing Escapology but I was. Or at least I was writing about the problem for which Escapology is a personal solution.
It seems that the indignity and unfairness of work is one of my obsessions and I wonder now if it will make an appearance in any future novels I write too.
Reader L writes:
I just read the magCulture interview. Why do you put so many of your books in your bookshelves spine-in? Are those the ones you’ve read and the spine-out group is fresh reading fodder?
Hi L. Yes, that’s correct. But it’s only temporary. I saw a YouTuber doing it and I thought it would be cool to get the live visualisation of read versus unread. I’ll put it back to normal soon though because it’s hardly practical for finding a specific book.
The same YouTuber described it as “playing with my library.” I thought, “hmm, I never play with my library. Maybe I’ll play with my library.”
It’s also fun to see the different colours of book paper: some of them aged and others new, some of them bright white and others burnt umber or practically orange.
The room is very sunny so I’m always aware that the spines of my books are becoming gradually bleached. Some yellow spines like that of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which I’ve owned for 20 years, is as good as white now. This gradual bleaching is always on my mind like how Foster, a librarian in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion is troubled by his surplus collection being housed in a drippy cave. So it’s nice to have a break from that worry while they’re all turned backwards, away from the sunlight.
I realise this has very little do with Escapology. Unless of course… it does?
Feeling bookish now? How about buying one?
We have a column in New Escapologist called Workplace Woes. It’s an opportunity for readers to anonymously blow off steam about their jobs, past or present.
In Issue 14 there was the story of an office Halloween Party that went from embarrassing to worse. There was also the tale of workplace racism out of the clear blue sky. Oh! And the story of animals escaping from a pet shop.
If you’d like to vent your spleen, please send me your Workplace Woes by email. All stories will be treated with utmost confidence. That’s the whole point.
Please keep them under 200 words (no need for elaborate scene setting: just cut right to the chase). Stories can be funny or anger-inducing or a little of both. It’s all good.
It would be particularly nice to hear some woes from the worlds of retail or hospitality and also some outdoorsy woes (e.g. construction industry), but if your story is simply office-based then that’s good too!
The deadline for Issue 15 is September 20th but any latecomers can be saved for future editions.
Thanks everyone. Over to you.