‘Grotesque model reveals what remote-workers will look like in 70 years’ read a Daily Mail headline in early June 2023, circulating a 3D image of Anna, a computer generated work-from-homer commissioned by the UK office furniture company Furniture At Work.
Anna’s image echoes the viral rendering of Emma, an office worker from 2039 with chronically bad posture, published by rival office equipment firm Fellowes in 2019. Unlike her pre-pandemic forebear, Anna has ditched the smart-casual attire for cropped pink athleisure and bare feet. She leans forwards with hunched shoulders as her spine juts out bulbously from below her nape. She has thin hair, thick block eyebrows and her face is sallow.
Anna’s conception is calculated, a sexist clay pigeon for ‘Generation Slack’, who value home working, recognising its capacity for greatly improving work-life balance and sidestepping disagreeable working conditions. She is pointedly detestable yet simultaneously valuable, rendered specifically by Furniture At Work to monetise from the clampdown on home working stoked by the UK government, often in a bid to justify having signed long-term office contracts without staff consultation on preferred usage.
Heed our warning, quietly urge the retailers, or this is your fate; unkempt, unsexy, unproductive.
Age of restlessness
Born of this age of restlessness is Anna, the protagonist of Olga Ravn’s new novel My Work, translated from Danish by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell. Anna, a 27-year-old Danish woman, gives birth to her first child and soon after moves to Stockholm with her partner, Aksel. She is listless and languid, both before and after the birth – exploring acupuncture, shopping online and compulsively checking fatalistic news headlines as ways of alleviating intrusive anxious thoughts and fears of failing at motherhood and a writerly life.
Ravn curates a slippery and searching text, and the novel is structured via a series of numbered ‘beginnings’ and ‘continuations’, echoing the rigid structuring of the writer’s first novel The Employees. The birth of Anna’s child is narrated through timestamped medical bulletins, and from this point, differing literary forms are employed, leaving the reader with an amorphous blend of letters, poems, journal accounts, biographies and other textual fragments.
The pairing of these fictional Annas – the propagandist witch and the literary heroine – is a contrasting portrait of modern labour: never ceasing and inherently demanding
The dissonance of conflicting identities, of ‘being’, ‘doing’ and paranoid insufficiency, rings through the work. Anna, the subject, is passed between literary forms and remedial spaces like a baton. In first-person accounts, she is thwarted by fears of misremembering, clouded by the spectre of her traumatic birth. Mediated by a third-party narrator, she confesses, ‘Who wrote this book? I did, of course. Although I’d like to convince you otherwise… I have tried to arrange the various parts based on what I surmise to be the order in which I wrote them. I have no recollection of having written any of it.’ The sections that ruminate on her anxiety and obsessions are difficult to read and evoke a whirling effect.
The exhaustion of disintegrated mental health and the shifting literary forms that shepherd this demise summon feelings of exhaustion. As Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek argue in their new work for Verso, After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time, this is symptomatic of the drudgery of reproductive labour ‘from which there is little respite’. In their discussion of care, they pay particular attention to the Nordic countries and Denmark, where high-quality day care is guaranteed for children and significantly subsidised by the state with free access for society’s poorest. There is a self-consciousness in Ravn’s book, which acknowledges the privileges of free universal healthcare in tandem with taxation, for which Anna is behind on payments while depression prevails.
Domestic housework provides solace for Anna as a meditative act that allows her to silently connect with lineages of female domestic workers before her. She identifies a parallel between the act of writing and doing laundry, where ‘thoughts come together in a similar way’, evoking a pleasant loneliness that takes the self on a voyage towards ‘this inner place to which work takes you, and where no one can follow’. As a homemaker and struggling writer, Anna feels comfortable in this silence, where the fear of speaking out of place or processing difficult hypotheticals are dumbed down. She ventures deeper into a depersonalised space, smoothing the creases and quieting all-consuming thoughts.
The pairing of these fictional Annas – the propagandist witch and the literary heroine – is a contrasting portrait of modern labour: never ceasing and inherently demanding. Time is finite and yet modern work demands all of our attention, all of the time.
The first Anna is a poorly-disguised sock puppet for late capitalist desires to transition back to pre-Covid working conditions. The Anna of Ravn’s novel is conscious of the fallibility of being a woman and a writer and a mother. Imperfection is inescapable and produces, as in Ravn’s text, a textured work that deftly draws out the fault lines of modern ways of working and creating. She writes: ‘I must accept that this book will most likely not be well-formed. Just as I must accept that my parenting will be full of mistakes, is already full of mistakes. That the strangeness of life will also exist in every book I write and every child I raise in this way. Books and parenthood are inextricably linked. Not as images of one another, but as two forms of vital creation. My work is to make sure the creation of one does not overshadow the other.’
This age of restlessness demands new ways of articulating its absurdity and the existential strain of being pulled in so many directions. Often, the real work is merely continuing to exist.