Cubicle Comedy

A UA writing teacher gives the dullness of modern-day office life a humorous treatment

University of Arizona writing teacher Aurelie Sheehan has a real knack for titles. Her debut collection of stories arrived with the irresistible moniker, Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant, and her first novel--the hilarious tale of a 29-year-old secretary who works at a Manhattan law firm--is entitled, The Anxiety of Everyday Objects.

If you've ever spent time in the sensory deprivation tank of cubicle life, here is the book to stash under your mouse pad. Steal passages when the higher-ups head for the conference room--it will reassure you that no, you are not insane: You're just wasting your time.

Somewhere in the back of her skull, Winona has begun to grasp this fact--but it's taking a while to catch on. In the meantime, she floats through life on a deflating raft of low-grade depression. She lives in a studio apartment with a cat and a very large wall clock. She spends free time with a milquetoast named Sincere Jeremy--a guy so earnest he wants them to enter couples counseling before they've even used the "L" word.

Like many office workers who haven't quite faced up to the slow death of their souls, Winona copes by burrowing into her imagination. As she copies, collates and color-coordinates hanging files, she imagines scenes from a film she will eventually make, called The Anxiety of Everyday Objects. She visualizes the movie as a heavily sound-tracked mood piece about a woman wandering through a day looking at objects--a shampoo jar, a street sign--that morph before her eyes. A Nexxus bottle becomes Nervous, a road sign that says, "passing CURVES right" suddenly contains a cryptic, but essential message.

Describing this visual delirium is just one of the many clever ways Sheehan captures the lobotomized mania that comes from burning one's days for The Man--which is no small feat. Indeed, with cartoons like "Dilbert" and sitcoms like The Office, it's hard to say much about corporate life that hasn't been noted before--but Sheehan does so here. If The Office captured the tonal tics and linguistic jabberwocky of corporate life, Sheehan shows what it feels like on the inside. Here, for example, is Winona on the self-erasure that occurs while taking dictation:

"Typing for others is like having a silent woodpecker drilling a hole into your forehead. You are you, in a relatively new skirt that itches at the edges (it's wool and you're allergic), with a firm and historical love for words--Nancy Drew on the porch, War and Peace one winter--and you are you who has many of your own private thoughts about the ways of the world, and would perhaps jot them down yourself someday, or even say them out loud to a table full of cognac drinkers, but instead you are you who is polite and also, let's get down to basics, need to make a living, and so you are being paid to type the words of others. Of a lawyer named William Mauster. His words go through your head slow and sure, like a TV anchor's cue card."

Two events finally jar Winona out of her stupor. The first revolves around an ambiguous relationship that forms with Rex, the firm's youngest lawyer. The second concerns the arrival of a new lawyer--Sandy--a blind, high-powered control freak who orchestrates Winona's promotion to office manager. Both of these developments involve moral quandaries. Winona is clearly more attracted to Rex than her own beau, but is this a mild flirtation or a signpost for change? Sandy's attention is also flattering, but Winona has begun to discover some irregularities at the office which--whether she is a good secretary or not--make her slightly uneasy. Does she let them go, or does she investigate?

Plotting does not appear to be Sheehan's strong suit, for what follows feels unlikely--even in the most tertiary fictional reality. The real joys of reading this book come from the little landmines of humor Sheehan plants throughout Winona's sad story. Most of them are observatory, which jives well with Winona's passive, wallflower personality. There's Rex's "dark blond hair waved back from his face as if he were in a wind machine," and the way Winona realizes she's hit bottom--while wolfing down peanut butter and jelly on wheat and diet Coke.

Sheehan worked as a secretary before she became a professor and full-time writer, and these little details have the ring of truth. It also gives this rather gimlet-eyed book a hopeful tint. One assumes Sheehan was at one point like Winona--nearly erased by her boredom. And now she's published her second book. Who says revenge isn't sweet?

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