Dystopian desk jobs make for dark, fascinating fiction
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2022 (209 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
French bookstore owner and novelist Grégoire Courtois follows up his controversial cult-hit horror novel The Laws of the Skies with an equally bloody but more sci-fi-inflected dystopian vision in The Agents.
Set in the far future, the titular agents are workers within a giant office tower. Agent jobs are highly coveted, as the alternative is to be forced into the desolate wasteland of the street, a place no agent has ever seen or experienced because the office tower is completely sealed off and reaches high above the ground, which is covered in thick fog — the street can not be seen from the windows hundreds of storeys up.
Each agent has their own cubicle where they monitor endless screens of data. It is imperative that the agents are productive in their monitoring, though none actually know what they are monitoring since the data is largely impenetrable to human understanding.
Though there is basically no official recognition of difference from the workplace itself, the agents band together in different guilds where they battle ferociously for territory on the office floor. The placement of cubicles belonging to guild members is of great importance and so, during their few 15-minute breaks in the workday, the agents wage full-scale war to oust cubicle occupants and hope to bring the inevitable replacement agent into their ranks.
Other than food and accommodation, the only thing for agents to spend their wages on are weapons. That is, until the all-controlling office system offers a new loan option that guilds can take on, the amount of which is determined by the number of adjacent cubicles controlled by the guild. This soon escalates into a massive conflict that consumes the entire floor of the office — it could reach even further, but no agents have any contact with any of the other floors.
Courtois deftly balances not only a wide range of influences but also an impressive range of tone throughout the novel, originally published in French in 2019. The hellish ür-office described is equal parts satire and dystopian anxiety, pulling ideas from shows such as Black Mirror and the short stories of Thomas Ligotti.
The agent characters as well provide some comic relief — Théodore, for example, has amputated all of his toes and so has to be in perpetual motion, often twirling in place to avoid falling over. This is contrasted with Clara, who would fit in as a cenobite from the Hellraiser series. Desperate for some individuality, Clara continually performs surgical procedures on her body, altering her physical appearance drastically, though still managing to avoid changing any of the biological markers that the office system uses to identify individual agents.
Courtois’s previous novel The Laws of the Skies was both reviled and revered for its unflinching brutality and utterly bleak story — a group of first grade students who get lost in the woods during a school trip and all die. The Agents, translated by Rhonda Mullins, may not seem as extreme on the surface, but it is still brutal in its descriptions of violence and its nihilistic world view. The contortion of office politics into full-on battlefields is indeed a stretch and yet, as large corporations pull in ever more meteoric profits while workers’ wages and benefits continue to languish, many only continuing to work for fear that it would be even worse to be fired and thrown out into the street, perhaps the conflict at the core of The Agents is not so far fetched.
Like The Laws of the Skies before it, The Agents is a literary work of destabilizing nihilism. While dark, vicious and violent, it is meant to arouse discomfort in the reader, to hold the mirror to something uncomfortable.
It would seem that Courtois hopes the reader will not look away, even as he tries very hard to tempt them to. Novels like this are why we need the horror genre.
Keith Cadieux is a Winnipeg writer and editor.