Excerpt from “Apathy and Other Small Victories” by Paul Neilan

It’s about as positivity filled as you’d imagine!

While Neilan’s Apathy isn’t an anti-work book per se’ the passages that do involve work are often disparaging. They’re often made up of our main character (who only goes by Shane) falling asleep in the bathroom, coming in drunk and then falling asleep in the bathroom or mocking his co-workers.

Suffice it to say, Shane doesn’t have the best opinion of work or the corporation he works for (an insurance company). It doesn’t help that he also works in a typical cubicle environment where the boss is overly-friendly, the co-workers are deluding themselves into happiness (or so Shane says) and there’s an “inspiration alley” of positive quotes.

At one point in the book Shane has a (drunk) epiphany, no meditation needed!

The idea of cubicles was bad enough, but making people sit in them all day was just inhuman. They had to go. They were like The Hole in southern prisons or how farmers raise veal. It was like sticking a brick of cocaine up your as s and smuggling it across the border. Things were being crammed into places they were never meant to fit. And what these people did to their cubicles made it even worse. Dressing them up with trinkets and pictures, always trying to make their fabric walls look hospitable made it even worse.

I understood why they did it, but that didn’t make it right. Lying to other people is fine and usually funny, but lying to yourself is tacky. There’s nothing hospitable about an 8′ X 8′ carpeted holding cell on the eighteenth floor of an insurance building, and it would be wrong to forget that. To pretend otherwise only blurs the line between work life and real life, and that’s a line that needs to be starkly and brutally enforced. Boundaries are fucking important.

And everyone drank too much coffee too, at the wrong times and for the wrong reasons. They drank it when they came in every morning to get going, and then again in the afternoon to keep going. They ran on caffeine fumes all day and never fucking got anywhere. Then they went home spent and empty and crashed in front of the TV every night and slept away the few hours they had for themselves.

All these motherfuckers are always talking about the best ways to manage our time. The fact is any time spent at work not sleeping in the bathroom is wasted time, and it’s hard to sleep when you’re pumped full of caffeine. Everyone’s awake for the wrong part of their lives. And by the weekend they’re too exhausted from all the frantic, useless activity to even care, and it’s only fucking two days of anyway. Nobody has the time or energy to do what they really want, or to even figure out what that is. That’s why everyone’s so pissed off and blowing each other away on the freeways and having sex with prostitutes all the time.

And goddamn Inspiration Alley was so grotesquely misguided it pained me to even have to acknowledge it, even more so because nobody else did. It was the execution-style murder of context. It was a history castrated to a sound bite. It was seeing a rainbow in the waves of an oil slick as it seeped across the ocean drowning fish and strangling birders and believing that ecological catastrophes had their own redeeming beauty. A world in which it’s possible for someone to association Martin Luther King with increased alphabetizing efficiency is a world in which none of us should ever want to live.

Whether knowing these things made me a prophet or a management consultant I wasn’t sure. I think they might be the same thing now anyway. I could have tried to tell someone, tried to make them understand, but I didn’t really want to. It wouldn’t have helped anyway. This was a system so sick, so tainted, no good could ever come from it. Except when they had huge company-wide charity drives and raised a lot of money for the United Way. But that was offset by the humiliation of Jeans Day and having to gather around someone’s cubicle to sing “Happy Birthday” in monotone and all the other ways in which a person was diminished every day until they became so small not even the United Way could save them.

Even something so seemingly right as Bring Your Daughter to Work Day in that environment was horribly, horribly wrong. Marching a sweet, innocent nine year old who likes ponies and dreaming into an 8′ X 8′ cubicle and telling her that if she’s strong and independent she’ll get to spend forty years in there slowly wasting away is an exercise in feminist misogyny. It was like a fucking Scared Straight program, a right-wing Christian conspiracy to create more stay-at-home moms. You grab a little girl by the pigtails and say, “Suzy, this is what hell looks like!” and obviously she’s going to kick off her shoes and get pregnant at fifteen. And she’ll keep going for as long as the clock runs, anything to stay out of that cubicle.

If I could ovulate that’s where I would’ve been. But I could not. But I could not. (pp. 148-150)

As you can see, Shane doesn’t pull any punches.

Throughout the book Shane critiques corporate culture in many ways from its language, to its plastic nature and anything else he can see.

None of the critiques are particularly new or awe-inspiring but they certainly struck chords with me as someone who suffers apathy and depression via work. I don’t have the same interest in alcohol Shane does and nor can I just lock myself in the store’s bathroom without getting fired. But it was still really refreshing to see a fictionalized (and fairly recent, 2006/7) slacker who makes no qualms about saying, “fuck you!” to work.

I recommend the book more generally though. The anti-work passages and moments aside the book is very funny in a surreal and dark way. Some of the humor is likely to offend and there were a few lines here or there that seem out-of-date even less than ten years later.

But all in all Apathy is a real winner of a book, despite its main protagonist feeling much differently.

Special thanks to Mom for recommending the book to me.

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