‘Job Shadowing’ by Malcolm Sutton

Job ShadowingReviewed by Ben Wood

Malcolm Sutton’s debut novel, Job Shadowing, is an experimental response to the present crisis of work, a response that explores the notion of shadowing to pose interesting questions about work and identity. The underlying theoretical influences wrestle for precedence with the primary elements of the novel, which results in flat characters whose experiences seem written to conform to a particular theory rather than to tell a story.

The novel follows partners Gil and Etti, whose lives suddenly change when they each find themselves without work. Gil is devoted to supporting Etti’s art practice to the point that he ignores himself and, as a result, feels far off from his adult milestones. Etti notices this aimlessness and tells him that she isn’t sure if they still have a place in each other’s life.

Gil wanders from home and happens upon Learning Ecologies, a sort of work-education program, where he shadows a corporate employee named Victoria. Sutton is at his most experimental when describing the transformation Gil undergoes during the job shadowing experience – a change that, at first, prevents Victoria from being aware he is her shadow. She can sense Gil’s presence but isn’t sure if what she is sensing is an external presence or a physical change in her own body. She even considers that she is pregnant. Eventually, she sees two specialists to try to remove her shadow.

Etti’s experience as a shadow is less fantastical than Gil’s, and doesn’t involve Learning Ecologies, but it is made no more engaging by its realism. She is an artist whose work involves her leading a group of adolescents through a vague collaborative art project in a shared space, like the unit in an industrial park which doubles as her and Gil’s home. When her latest project ends without anything else on the horizon, she writes to a wealthy man whose name she finds on a list of art gallery donors. She flies to Helsinki to meet the man, named Caslon, and comes to stay on his yacht, where most of her time is spent waiting to talk to him. Her reason for initially seeking him out is never made entirely clear, though it is loosely related to a new art project that she hopes will give her the type of fame her friend F. is currently enjoying. At one point Caslon wants her to write his memoir, though that too remains undefined. It is this waiting for Caslon that forms the crux of her shadowing experience. Eventually she accepts money from him, though that comes at the additional cost of her silence when they are out in public on the few excursions that they make to land.

Sutton is clearly interested in how identity is informed by work, an especially critical topic at a time of austerity, unemployment and an unprecedented concentration of wealth, and uses the concept of a shadow to explore these themes. Gil and Etti’s shadowing experiences could be read as a search for identity, during which they encounter how work can destabilize our strongest convictions or effortlessly rewrite who we are. In Caslon and Victoria they might even see possible versions of themselves. Sutton is also interested in the shadow cast by the material desires of previous generations: house, car, pension. We may still want these things, or think that we do, and are told they are attainable goals even when they’re not. House costs have skyrocketed while wages have largely stagnated and jobs are increasingly becoming temporary and precarious. Here Sutton is directly addressing a millennial audience, and he warns that nostalgia for what your parents had is nothing but a desire for power.

The novel’s strength is that it poses many interesting questions on the relationship between identity and work. Most people have experienced how a job can provide an identity (whether we want it or not) or how a job can steal the one we have, change us, make us apathetic, cynical or greedy. Work can be a source of stress or anxiety. But Sutton’s focus is elsewhere than writing a story that engages with these questions. During a particularly telling scene, one of the people attempting to extricate the shadow-Gil from Victoria reads a passage from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 study of capitalist society, One Dimensional Man. As Gil listens, he wants to believe that a book of theory could contain all the answers, but ultimately knows it wouldn’t offer any answers at all; it would only point out the contradictions of our lives. This is what Sutton seems intent on illustrating in Job Shadowing, a book that highlights what we know about economic determinism and the contradictions of cultural capitalism, but a book that in the process falls short of telling an engaging story about lived experiences within these conditions.

In her essay, “Literature and Metaphysics,” philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir warned against awkwardly implanting one’s philosophical convictions onto the novel, something I think Sutton is guilty of here. One could look to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives as an example of a compelling story that is infused with philosophical discussions on politics, art, identity and belonging, or, more recently, to Maggie Nelson’s experimental work of “autotheory,” The Argonauts, a curious mix of memoir, storytelling and philosophy. Sutton doesn’t get the balance right between theory and story, and this results in characters that often lack convincing emotional responses, as though they are separated from their experiences by a critical distance that affords them the ability to make discerning judgements that fall in line with the theoretical convictions at the core of Job Shadowing. This is particularly true of the distant Etti, whose story often seems more artificial than Gil’s own transformational experience as a shadow. Sutton withholds Etti’s motivations for seeking out Caslon, why she stays on his yacht, why she accepts his money in exchange for silence in public, but does so without supplementing the ambiguity of Caslon with any mystery or intrigue, or the uncertainty of Etti’s motivations with an interest or empathy for the character that entices the reader to continue.

The experimental nature of Job Shadowing presents the familiar relationship between work and identity in interesting ways, and this will certainly resonate with younger readers experiencing the alienation of work for the first time, but it could have benefitted from characters whose experiences explore the ambiguities and complexities of the theory at the heart of the novel rather than simply conform to it.

BookThug | 228 pages | $20.00 | paper | ISBN# 9781771662024

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