LISA OWENS Not Working. Reviewed by Sally Nimon
Not Working is a novel for the millennial generation.
The 21st century is one giant tangle of paradoxes.
We have better and easier access to information than ever before, yet we seem less certain about anything. We are more educated than our grandparents could have dreamed of, yet unemployment is a growing problem. We have access to better and greater quantities of food than throughout most of history, yet we are fighting a losing battle with obesity and poor nutrition. Is it any wonder that some people struggle to find meaning and purpose in this confusing maze?
For Claire, the protagonist of Lisa Owens’s debut novel Not Working the almost boundless array of choice and possibility open to a 20-something university graduate in contemporary London is turning out to be less than ideal. On paper, Claire has it all: a boyfriend who is on track to become a surgeon, and with whom she co-owns property; a good relationship with her parents; she has even had a job, though at the time the novel opens she has just resigned in order to pursue more meaningful opportunities. The only snag is that finding the meaning in ‘meaningful’ is proving to be a lot harder than television sitcoms would have you believe.
Nor does it help that everyone around her seems to be having no problem in getting on with their lives. Paul, a friend from university, is forging a successful career as a conceptual artist, touring the world from Berlin to Tokyo, Vienna to New York. Sarah, Claire’s oldest friend, is settling down and getting married. Even her recently bereaved grandmother appears to have a richer social life, showing signs of annoyance at Claire’s tentative offers of outreach activities. And none of them can comprehend why she seems to be so stuck. Even Claire herself struggles to articulate the problem:
‘I’m just trying to understand what it is you do all day.’ Luke has a knuckle in one of his eyes, and I can see he’s really trying. On the table is a cheque I told him I would cash and a parcel for his sister I told him I would post.
‘I know it sounds strange,’ I say, ‘but the more time you have, the less time you have. Every moment becomes so precious.’ He’s looking up at the ceiling, inflating his cheeks. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll do it tomorrow,’ I say, and he nods and blows the air through his teeth.
In 1995 a group of researchers conducted an experiment in which consumers were offered a choice of different types of jam. Some were offered six varieties, others 24. What they found was that while having a greater amount of choice might appear to be more attractive, in practice it becomes debilitating. Consumers struggle to make a decision in the face of too many options. Claire is living in a world of too many types of jam. And the result is a stalemate, an incapacitating indecisiveness that begins to pervade every aspect of her life until certainty itself becomes elusive, even when the truth should be clear:
There is a man standing outside my flat … ‘Are you the freeholder?’ he asks, and I turn to see if he is talking to someone else, but there is no one behind me … ‘I think so, yes,’ I say.
Claire’s story is revealed through a series of first-person vignettes, disjointed moments from her life that are more reflective of the real nature of lived experience than a more conventional, smoother narrative. Through this series of apparently unconnected moments a larger story emerges, of the indecision, uncertainty and lack of direction that characterises many millennial lives. In a world of endless possibilities, in which your path in life is limited only by your own choices, every decision that you make can take on a level of significance that becomes at times almost sinister, from a joke that goes wrong at a grandfather’s funeral to the incapacity to take a parcel to the post office.
For this reason, the appeal of Not Working is likely to vary with the experience of the reader. Some will find Claire’s dilemma as baffling and frustrating as her family does; others will recognise the discordant chords that jar through their own lives. This is not a novel for everyone. But it might speak to the millennial generation in the way that Bridget Jones’s Diary did to Generation X – not fixing the problems, necessarily, but at least expressing them in a way that the afflicted can recognise.
In other words, if you’re after understanding (though not really a solution), Not Working might just work.
Lisa Owens Not Working Picador 2016 PB 272pp $29.99
Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.
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