Anne-Marie Kinney’s debut novel, Radio Iris, is a great book because it doesn’t try to hide what it is: a stark, unapologetic, piercing story about an emotionally bereft young person with a shitty job. This kind of story has been told before. And this is the kind of story that young writers are discouraged from writing—both in MFA programs and by the publishing industry, because too many have already been written, because too many have been written badly, because too many people with shitty jobs were too certain their stories were special. This is the kind of story that I once tried to write, and ultimately, shied away from, because doing it right is extremely difficult. But Kinney doesn’t shy away. Seeing past the low end of the shitty job genre, knowing the tradition’s better half, from Bartleby the Scrivener to The Trial to Tropic of Capricorn, Kinney doesn’t resort to contrivances to conceal the fact that she’s writing about a young woman who, living a life of corporate purposelessness and monotony, becomes isolated, numbed up, and deadened. Kinney doesn’t try to pretend that her story is something it isn’t, she doesn’t dress her story in a false uniqueness, and because she doesn’t, because she writes with so much self-assurance, what comes through is not a fabricated singularity, but a true singularity, one forged by Kinney’s forlorn and surreal voice, patience and subtlety with plot, and close attention to character.
After college, I had a shitty job for a company in San Francisco called the PlumpJack Group. It was supposed to be entrepreneurial training camp. PlumpJack was going to train me then launch me. I was supposed to be an entrepreneur, because I didn’t know how to write yet, and I wanted to make a massive amount of money as quickly as possible, and I didn’t want to be a banker. And if you want to read more about how terrible this type of life was, you can send me an email and I’ll send you the book I wrote about it, in the throes of the shitty job life’s foil, the shitty job life’s natural answer, the life phase that followed my years as a working man: total self-serious romantic writing life fervor.
Or rather, I won’t send you that book. Rather, I’ll send you a lengthy email describing the book I set out to write but couldn’t quite manage.
Iris works as a receptionist in an office. She doesn’t know what her company does, or what or where “corporate” is, and when her boss asks her to transcribe something, the messages are Kafkaesque-cryptic, with an emphasis on meetings and deals rather than the type of product or service her company trades in. Her description of the office feels both accurate and surreal. Or even, accurate because it’s surreal—when I had a shitty job in an office after college, my life felt exactly as warped as Iris’s, and when people asked what I did, I replied cheekily but truthfully that I clacked away at Excel spreadsheets.
Iris has a friend, Mallory, who’s always trying to get her to come out for drinks and meet guys. Iris doesn’t like Mallory all that much, but half-heartedly agrees to hang out with her anyway. Reading this, I felt as if Kinney were describing exactly my experience in San Francisco, when I knew people, but didn’t know who my friends were, and found myself, week after week, at wing night at the Blue Light on Union Street, guzzling one-dollar High Lifes with a guy named Franklin, waiting for that warm feeling to flood its way back into my chest. But that warmth never came, mostly on account of the fact that, as a twenty-two-year-old with a trumped up job but a stamped out spirit, I was too confused of a human to know what warmth was.
Iris has a brother, Neil, a traveling salesman whom she can never get through to on the phone. And next door, in the adjacent office, works a man whom Iris would very much like to break through to, but again, can’t—she bangs on his door, she drills a hole in the wall between them, she keeps an eye on his van, she writes to him, plaintively, painfully, “Please don’t go yet. My name is Iris. I want to talk to you.” But the man is skittish and evasive, as if real human breakthroughs are the most difficult thing in the world.
One thing I liked about my stint on the shitty job circuit was how we all got to speak in code. I’d have lunch with my coworker, a young mother named Ingrid, and we’d pretend to care about things we didn’t actually care about—what new developments our CEO would announce, how our company’s new businesses were doing. And pretending like this, refusing to addend our words with the unspoken but true closing clause to every sentence we spoke—“But of course I don’t care about any of this and this life’s quiet form of hell on earth is killing me off, partly because this code we’re speaking in now prevents me from knowing you…”—made things easier. Life gets a lot more manageable when your hopes are fake, and aren’t so rambling—“I hope business picks up at the new property!”
Iris is a complicated, captivating protagonist. She’s both depleted and functional. She shows up to the office despite the total insanity of her company’s operation, and she doesn’t complain. When her paycheck comes, she’s inquisitive enough to muse that she has no idea where this money is coming from, but still more inquisitive to muse that, with the check in her hand, “answers don’t matter much.”
Iris has a lostness about her. She’s at work but she doesn’t know why. She’s got a boss but she doesn’t know what he does. And she’s got a guy in the neighboring office whom she’s magnetically drawn to, if only because, unlike her boss, he might just be an actual human, and with an actual human, she might just emerge from her malaise.
But when interacting with people, Iris’s lostness comes to feel like deadness. When her brother fails to meet her for lunch, rather than become sad, Iris turns numb and sober. “She can always picture [Neil] leaving, whether she wants to or not.” The sobriety of this reflection has a damning quality; it makes Radio Iris seem like a wake for extinct emotions.
Iris comes across as dead when talking with a potential love interest too.
“So, which do you prefer,” [guy] asks [Iris], hands in his pockets, his jeans draping just so, “the city or the country?”
“I don’t know… neither?”
“Come on, you’ve got to pick one.”
“You mean, like the beach?”
“No, I… never mind.”
“No, what do you mean?”
“I thought I was telling a joke.”
Early in the book, there were times when this deadness felt like an affectation, like Kinney was putting up some kind of front. But I was wrong. This is no hipster who’s too cool to like, let alone love. This is a woman determined to break the hell out of that, to rediscover how to love. Iris’s deadness is exactly the crisis that propels the story. It’s what Iris is trying to destroy, and her good faith efforts to do so—“Please don’t go yet. My name is Iris. I want to talk to you.”—drive the story to its surreal breakthrough of a finish.
The book I wanted to write was going to be about walking to and from work, sitting at the same lunch counter every day, and waiting for texts from a girl. And that was it. I was determined to avoid any semblance of plot. Nothing was going to happen. It was going to be true to the rhythms of my life in San Francisco, wearing that god awful wind breaker that somebody gave me that I was too apathetic to replace with something cool looking, walking up the hill from Lower Pac Heights through Lafayette Park past the woman I saw every day—every day—for two years without ever once making eye contact with, sitting down at my computer, deciding when I’d be able to take my first coffee break and reading every article on ESPN.com while waiting for the girl I was best friends with from growing up to send me some kind of reassurance that, sometime eventually, she’d swoop into town, sit me down, tell me I had to stop doing this, and force me to follow her to some kind of island or something where we’d fall in love.
Unfortunately, this kind of book was extremely difficult to write. I wasn’t a skilled enough writer to do it, and after a few chapters, I realized that, well, something had to happen. I had to introduce some plot, some kind of crisis more specific than a total life crisis. So I did. And this had nothing to do with any kind of MFA or publishing industry pressure—I could tell as well as anyone that my book was unreadable.
But still, a few years later, when I showed my baby around, I heard the same thing over and over again—tell me more of a story.
So I, obedient to the feedback I got from agents I’d never met, turned my book upside down and added real, proper plot and crisis. And I got to the end, called the book done, and I had two thoughts. The first: that this was not the book I’d set out to write. The second: that I’d only just now learned how to write, and had only now acquired backbone.
Kinney didn’t have the backbone problem. And you can feel it, reading Radio Iris, the pressure of writing the way that she does—slowly, methodically, descriptively, steadfastly numbly, the pressure building up. And for me, that pressure I felt building in Radio Iris wasn’t the desire for something to happen, for something to send an axe through this block of a story. Rather, that pressure was this: about two thirds of the way through, I found myself desperately praying that nothing would happen at all, that Kinney would be able to stick to her guns to the end.
Kinney moves slowly, with extended, dramatic descriptions. She’ll describe at length the imagined movement of a letter from Iris through the postal service to a business partner, and then leave off with these little schisms, these frays in the description that keep the story kinetic. “[As the letter moves from hand to hand, Iris] sees the placement of their calluses, the ringers of their fingers, hangnails or none, nails chewed or painted. Then the phone rings, and it all vanishes.” Radio Iris is like a massive cactus rising in spite of the dryness of the earth, with Kinney’s schismatic insights splintering off into the beautiful, patterned chaos of needles and spikes.
Kinney’s writing is poised, never succumbing to quick and easy ways to inject tension. The description provides tension enough, the sheer strangeness of movement through Iris’s world, Iris’s sheer isolation, the specter of a world in which Iris manages to get through her days just fine—even, successfully—despite total lack of basic human warmth, as if her blood has gone cold but her environs—the office, her friend Mallory—have failed to denounce her dead. This is the crisis—a living dead young person, and Kinney refuses to conceal it with any contrivances.
Contrast this with some other recent shitty job debuts, like Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005), which creates a hodgepodge of a protagonist from the ghosts of American literature’s frustrated-young-persons past, and gives him a plot device—a pill that resolves his indecision—that the author barely seems to believe in. Or contrast this with Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007), a book I loved, because, like Kinney, it gets the office experience so damn right (and because of its generosity and warmth for the corporate worker). But Ferris can’t describe it as purely, as directly as Kinney—he needs a bigger plot, and he needs satire. These aren’t bad things, and I loved that book. But I think Kinney’s achievement is bigger—description that relies on nothing but the unadulterated surreality of the true shitty job experience.
When I hear a new song and love it immediately, I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for that song to happen. With this book, I felt like it was the book I wanted when I quit my job in a huff and sat down and wrote by hand until I got neuropathy in my elbow, at age twenty-five, before most people my age even knew what neuropathy was. And I’m glad Kinney wrote it. Because when every literary professional I met was rolling his eyes because I’d written a book about a confused young man with a shitty job after college, telling me that too many of those books have already come out, my response was always the same: “Books about young people with shitty jobs keep coming out for a reason.”
Now, immersed as I am in the real writing life (as opposed to the total self-serious romantic writing life fervor that came before this, meaning that now, rather than neuropathy in my elbow, I have a TA job and friends who are writers and no desire to explain myself to businessmen), it’s weird to remember the shitty job life. But if I try, I can.
There’s something terrible about being twenty-two and being launched into the world and being desperate to get a job and become an adult and then getting that job and being happy and willing to do right by it, only to find that, in exchange for the spiritual comfort you’ve derived from acquiring a one-word life explanation—marketing, banking, advertising—you’ve been asked to compromise your brain and your heart.
The shitty job life is insufficient to who we are, and Kinney illustrates this gorgeously. Throughout the book, Iris reflects on a memory from her past—a boy falling out of a tree. This is the tragedy that, as far as we can tell, defined her family dynamic and bore Iris. And her office job fails to service this tragedy. Her office job fails to let her tragedy resolve itself with the discovery of warmth and forgiveness in other people, and her office job fails to let her tragedy destroy her too, by protecting her in the safe harbor of a pointless routine. Without resolution, without destruction, Iris gets deadness, and I don’t know about you, but deadness at twenty-two is plenty crisis for me.