Review: Perfect Tense By Michael Bracewell Essay, Research Paper
A story of the horrors of office lifePerfect Tense, by Michael Bracewell (Vintage)Early on in this novel of that oxymoron, office life, Bracewell’s nameless narrator recalls walking along with the commuter tide over London Bridge. How can you not think of Eliot? “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”Bracewell’s office drone puts it this way: “The glare of the sunshine was so bright that I had to stare down at the pavement as I walked along.” Just in case we didn’t get the allusion, there’s another nod to the gloomy banker-poet later on: “The air in the office dries out my eyes and I measure out my life with Optrex.”Let me make it clear that I am not accusing Bracewell of lack of imagination. Let’s blame the nature of white-collar employment as devised by 20th-century capitalism. For Eliot, and I hope Bracewell too, are going to stand because they have caught precisely the horror of this kind of existence.On that day on London Bridge, our hero actually tries to buck the anomie by throwing a sickie. He discovers that the exhilaration of the decision to do so far outweighs the reality of the rest of his day. So now we find him, a decade and a half later, “just the wrong side of forty”, working as one of those general wastes of space you find in offices. Having done my stint in a place very much like that I can warmly testify to the feelings of inadequacy, panic and emptiness he so accurately evokes.And anyone with anything approaching a soul who has worked in a bureaucracy for more than five minutes, who has let their mind wander in reverie the instant they have sat down in a meeting, who has wondered what the hell they are doing there and whether it is actually possible to die of boredom, will feel exactly the same. The shock of almost nauseating recognition is as strong as it is when watching that TV sitcom, The Office.Perfect Tense is also, quietly, about more than that. Our hero may be a cipher but he has an inner life, a recording eye, and in the absence of anything very much happening in his working life, we hear many of his digressions on post-punk culture, what it was like growing up at a certain time in England, and how extraordinary the advances in sandwich-making have become since Thatcher.These are always astute; although flirting with the notion of looking like out-takes from an unpublished work of pop social anthropology, Bracewell’s consistency of tone keeps them, so to speak, in character. One of the best jokes here is when one of his denser lucubrations is interrupted in mid-word. (”As starved of imagination as it is gorged on self-confidence, this gener-”)John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips, also about a quotidian nobody, came out around the time Bracewell must have been checking the proofs of Perfect Tense. He may have groaned. But while their arenas are close, their modes are different. Lanchester’s hero is a Voltairean construct who sees odd things as if for the first time, all the time. Bracewell’s is not sure he actually has any more room for any more experience. He may even be dead, or not exist except as a ghost, having already passed into the Eliotian limbo: few notice him, and he has no life we hear of outside office hours, and certainly no sex. And yet this is not a grim book. It says: you are not alone.
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