Day 38: Ed Park’s Debut Novel “Personal Days” is BTS

Perhaps it’s the sadist in me speaking but everytime I think of a recurrent scene from Ed Park’s “Personal Days” – one where another unwitting worker bee in a Manhattan office that is the eastern outpost of an Omaha-owned company is about to get the ax – my auditory cortex hijacks the high-suspense tableau and starts playing ABBA’s “Take A Chance On Me”, their hearts lub-dub-lub-dubbing to its frothy beat:

If you change your mind,

(Take a chance, Take a chance, Take-a-Take-a-chan-chance)

I’m the first in line

(Take a chance, Take a chance, Take-a-Take-a-chan-chance)

Honey I’m still free

(Take a chance, Take a chance, Take-a-Take-a-chan-chance)

Take a chance on me

What can I say, it’s just like my imagination to transform an otherwise edge-of-your-seat Russian roulette of corporate carnage into a perversely droll game of musical chairs. Not that the characters in “Personal Days” look anything like the flower-power-channelling Swedish foursome in their heyday but I think Park is largely to blame for my musical malaprop. “Personal Days” is his sardonic take on modern-day corporate culture – from its its shared elevator rides and Googling compulsions to extra-cubicular romances and the main entrée, job-security paranoias. “The Firings” have been going on in the aforementioned office for more than a year leaving us guessing whose head rolls next in a narrative that’s the Starbucks-addicted, cheeky Gen-X grand-nephew of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”.

“You poor things!” would have been my initial reaction to the plight of these office drones. When I realized, halfway through the novel, that their inertia in simply quitting the job had less to do with macroeconomic woes than their barely-disguised self-destructive impulses, ABBA shimmied in, the glee oozing through their Scandinavian pores. “Personal Days” is in a lot of ways an invert of Chuck Palahniuk’s equally ironic “Fight Club” but the violence Park specializes in is more catatonic and subterranean. Everyone loves a train wreck and the sequence of terminations is the closest Park’s characters come to such a treat. 

Think about it: the moments immediately preceding another employee’s firing is not much different from the heights of ecstasy one reaches in erotic asphyxiation. Those precious few seconds of breathless briss or terror where, as George Carlin put it, “you don’t know whether you’re coming or going.” (It doesn’t help that the mantra of “take-a-chance-take-a-chance” seems to have been delivered with an irregular breathing pattern. Get out of your ABBA-groupie closets, my dears!) This is the one collective fetish that these Manhattanized denizens of Dunder Mifflin seem to have cultivated (the pre-firing anxiety attacks, not the erotic asphyxiation). It’s a good thing that “Personal Days”, Park’s first novel, is actually worth holding your breath a few seconds for. 

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