On Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job and the path beyond workplace burnout
“I once read there are two kinds of time, mechanical and human. You could say my story began at 8:59, the day I started that job and ended months later when I left it. But I’d tell you it began in the past with my old self, and ended in the future, with a new one.”—Iris, Clockwatchers
The easiest job I ever had was at my university library. I was a student worker, not a temp, but part-time with the understanding that once I graduated I would also graduate out of the job. The interlibrary-loan office was behind the circulation desk, and every shift I would tape yellow cardstock bands around book covers, and then tape a white paper slip over the band. I must have made thousands of tape bubbles. When the books were returned, I would unstick all the paper again, making a stack of curled yellow cardstock bands that softened with every use.
I listened to music and sat in the air-conditioning. I didn’t have to speak to customers, or fold anything, or even smile, and it paid better than retail. It was an easy job because it was low stakes, low stress, and low commitment. They just needed someone to tape and untape the bands. Nobody in that office expected me to love the work, to find passion in refilling the tape dispenser, to go above and beyond and give it my all.
The narrator in Kikuko Tsumura’s novel There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job quits her job of fourteen years after developing “burnout syndrome.” Her burnout is so bad that she moves back in with her parents to recuperate. When her unemployment runs out, she tells Mrs. Masakado at the employment center that she wants an easy job, “ideally, something along the lines of sitting all day in a chair overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skincare products.” Mrs. Masakado obliges, placing the narrator at a surveillance company where she watches footage of an author suspected of intercepting contraband. She excels and is given a bonus. An employee extolls the benefits of the staff union. They negotiate assignment swaps so no one is forced to surveil someone they can’t stand, ensuring that the work isn’t unbearable. But, the narrator declines the offer to stay on as a permanent employee.
The novel is filled with the textures of dailiness, filtered through the narrator’s contemplative and detached voice. The detachment is a defense, a “burnout syndrome” preventative. “After having to leave my old job because of burnout syndrome, I was rationally aware that it wasn’t a good idea to get too emotionally involved in what I was doing,” the narrator says. The narrator’s slow and detailed observations of her new surroundings focus her gaze away from her work and toward the moments in between tasks—breaktime.
At the surveillance company she notices the boss’s plum tea reappearing in the kitchen every three days. She relishes the small joys of lunch: a yakisoba roll, a tofu bento box. In each new workplace, she takes stock of her surroundings, the particular rhythms and habits of her new and temporary coworkers, the way small routines create a pocket of relief from the workday, a way to soften the contours of the tasks at hand, lest she grip onto them too tightly. In the last days of her job at the bus company she says, “it was only with multiple trips to make tea, bursts of tidying the office and endless breaks that I could fill up the hours.”
Over the course of four hundred pages, Mrs. Masakado helps the narrator secure four more temporary jobs: the advertising department at a bus company, writing trivia for rice cracker packets, replacing government commissioned posters in a neighborhood, and perforating tickets in the middle of a sprawling forested park. Each position fulfills the narrator’s criteria of “a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not.” But, at each job something strange happens, a slippage between the reality of the job and the reality outside of it.
The narrator starts falling asleep when her surveillance subject takes his daily naps, begins to crave the food he eats. Businesses seemingly pop up and disappear along with their bus advertisements. A fictional rice cracker packet mascot meets her real-life counterpart. The forest park is haunted by a bearded ghost. Boundaries dissolve between work and life, and the narrator’s easy jobs become more complicated than she bargained for.
Eventually the narrator in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job finds an answer to her burnout, and the novel ends on a hopeful note. After keeping the details of her former profession vague, she finally reveals what she used to do and opens up the possibility of returning to the job that gave her “burnout syndrome.”
Five temp jobs later, she concludes that all workplaces have ups, downs, pitfalls, and perks. That sounds like the manager’s party line, the boss’s defense of a bad workplace. Why doesn’t she hope for something better? “You just had to give it your all, and hope for the best,” she says. But didn’t she already give it her all? Wasn’t that what got her here in the first place?
In the early pages of the novel the narrator describes the conditions of her burnout, “I’d found my previous job worthwhile, but had felt chronically betrayed in regards to both the nature and the quantity of the work involved, and it got to a point where I simply couldn’t stand it anymore.” At the end of the novel, the narrator seems to embark on a path toward burnout once again, cheerfully extolling the virtues of giving one’s all to the workplace.
While five temp jobs restore a sense of hope and stability for the narrator in Tsumura’s novel, one temp job fundamentally changes Iris, the narrator of Jill Sprecher’s 1997 film Clockwatchers. The movie begins with a clock loudly ticking from eight fifty-nine to nine AM. Iris is the new temp at the credit union. “I think I’m supposed to work here today.” she says to the receptionist.
Iris is so shy that she waits for nearly two hours before a manager walks her to her desk. Bold and brash Margaret shows Iris the ropes and introduces her to the other temps, Jane and Paula. Together they search for any avenue of advancement in their dead-end jobs and try their best to pass the time, waiting for the minute hand to strike five o’clock.
After-work drinks and a trip to the palm reader cement the new friendship between the temps. The palm reader tells Iris, “You tiptoe through life, don’t be afraid to make your mark;” her message to Margaret, “The nail that stands out gets pounded down.”
Before the movie takes a darker turn, there is a dreamy montage dedicated to the small and quiet moments that pass the time at work while we dream of the future, or at least the end of the workday. Iris presses a seashell against her ear like a telephone. Paula gives herself a white-out French manicure. Jane twirls in her chair, adjusting the seat height up and down. The mail guy takes a blissful inhale from a pink marker. Margaret carves something into her desk with a letter opener.
This syrupy slow dailiness is disrupted by a string of thefts in the office. Things are off-kilter, “like a spell had been cast onto the office,” Iris says as a businessman plucks a lily petal off of a bouquet and stuffs it in his mouth. Suspicion soon turns to the temps. The four women, surveilled and pitted against each other by management, begin to split apart. The strike that Margaret initially suggests never happens.
By the end of the movie, the fortune teller’s predictions come true after all. Margaret is sent packing and Iris is more cynical and world weary, but also wiser to the empty promises of the job, how it failed her and her friends. The scales fall from her eyes. The spell is broken. After tricking her boss into signing a recommendation letter on behalf of Margaret, Iris sits at Margaret’s desk one last time, scratching out the word “never” in Margaret’s carved message so it reads, “I was here.”
Clockwatchers ends with Iris moving on from her job at the credit union. The quartet of friends seems split up for good, their slow and unremarkable cubical hours all but forgotten by the permanents in the office, save for Iris’s and Margaret’s engraving. The hope of flourishing in an office, to make the leap from temp to perm, to bloom in a field of cubicles, fluorescent lights buzzing along with the muzak, is also in the realm of the surreal. This is what Iris learns from her job at the credit union. It didn’t matter if Margaret or Paula or Jane gave their all. They were never going to succeed there. They hoped for the best, and the best never happened.
Clockwatchers and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job overlap in their surreal depictions of workplace banality, but Sprecher lingers on the bitter disappointment of the credit union while Tsumura offers a more optimistic, if not fantastic, outlook on recovering from burnout syndrome through more work. There’s a scene from Clockwatchers, where a worker crouches behind the water cooler, his face warped by the plastic jug. Both Sprecher’s film and Tsumura’s novel warp the workplace to show its slipperiness, the way it spills over from the cubicle to the home, from the day to the night, long after the clock strikes five. But, unlike the narrator in Tsumura’s novel, Iris is not ready to go back to work and give it her all.
She has seen first-hand that hoping for the best does nothing in the face of an office full of petty corporate tyrants who treat temps as disposable, replaceable, and nameless. There’s an early scene in the movie when Iris’s dad comes to visit her. She tells him she’s making friends at work, that things are going well.
He says to her, “Haven’t I always told you? Hang in be your sweet self, and good things are bound to happen.” His affable positivity recalls the ending of Tsumura’s novel. If you give it your all, then good things are bound to happen. Aren’t these the magic words of the manager, the boss? Flimsy and surreal fictions that keep employees working hard at jobs that burn them out.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job seems to betray its initial portrayal of its post-burnout narrator. Her burned out edges are sanded down to a soft acceptance of the inherent unpredictability of all jobs by the end. Maybe there is no such thing as an easy job, but maybe the job could be easier, could provide better benefits and pay, could prioritize retaining employees instead of overworking and underpaying them to the point of burnout. I wanted the narrator to think back to the union at her first temp placement at the surveillance center, and to consider the possibilities of a job made less difficult through workplace organizing. I think of Margaret from Clockwatchers saying, “This calls for action. I think we should go on strike.”
When Tsumura’s narrator talks with a man who fled his unbearable job to live in the park, she finds herself identifying with his story, but then she pulls back, unsure. “All of this was no more than projection, based on my own experience,” she decides. Maybe my reading of the novel, my expectation and desire that it would side with the worker rather than the work, was also “no more than projection.” How do you move forward after you’ve felt chronically betrayed by a job you once found worthwhile? Maybe I read this book hoping for the answer, but neither the novel nor the narrator is an instruction manual.
My first full-time job would pay me an hourly wage less than what I made as a student worker at the library. At the time it seemed like the dream job, or at least on the way to a dream job—perhaps the most surreal kind of job there is. Neither easy nor real, the dream job is built on the fiction that if you love what you do, then it’s not work at all. Can’t we dream of something better? I gave it my all, and then I burned out. When the job posting for my vacated position went online, people spread the word, calling it a “dream job.”