By Torin Jensen
Mónica de la Torre’s newest book, The Happy End / All Welcome (Ugly Duckling Press, 2017), begins with a note: “After Martin Kippenberger’s installation ‘The Happy End of franz Kafka’s America’ (an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands) which references a giant job fair held by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in Kafka’s unfinished Amerika - a novel Kippenberger claimed never to have read.”
In a book that responds to an interactive art installation which, in turn, responded to a scene in an unfinished novel that takes place in the U.S. (which the author had never visited), a novel the art installation’s creator claimed not to have read, the reader begins the book at a layered distance that de la Torre takes as her task to fill in with theatrical absurdity. It’s a mark of her skill as a writer that this absurdity, at times quite funny, at others surgically parodic, never slips out of character. The poems act like set pieces and the resultant mis-en-scene allows de la Torre to explore the absurdity of contemporary employment culture and the language that accompanies that world.
It’s a language commodified beyond all reasonability. In this particular job fair put on by “The Company,” there’s an interview between “Aspiring Lifeguard” and “Bather,” which consists of mostly non-sequitur questions and answers that end with the all important question, “Do you want the position or not?”
There’s a discussion between a manager and a consultant during which the consultant delights in explaining how an organization’s particular parts should and should not function like various human organs, and it’s easy to imagine some consulting company somewhere charging exorbitant money for just such analysis. Later, a list of “Human Intelligence Tasks” includes items like “Find photographs of judges” and “Watch videos and click buttons.” There’s even a list of “Available Positions” that describe various physical ways of occupying a chair, such as “Slumping, pelvis curled in.”
As an imagined exploration of Kippenberger’s interactive installation, The Happy End allows the reader to wander through a space that places employment culture at a deceptively comfortable, absurd remove. Here, the objective to find a place for everyone, “each in their place!,” prescribes even mundane actions like slumping in the chair as job-like functions. As a result, there’s simply nothing that exists in “The Company” that is also outside its commodified purview.
Whether you see de la Torre’s vision as utopian (“A place for everyone!”) or rather some alternative contemporary dystopia (employees as replaceable as the office furniture they occupy) depends on how you view the distance between de la Torre’s absurdity and our contemporary situation.
In terms of how literally theatrical the job fair is (as an imagined experience of the art installation), its absurdity lends itself to utopian humor. In “Furniture Tester,” the titular character undergoes a series of existential observations related to furniture, such as “Given the vagueness of her records--has her experience been built into the design? Are the stimuli interior or exterior; she considers tinnitus as metaphor.” In the end, “She goes on seeking comfort in uncomfortable chairs.” In The Company, there’s a place for everyone, even the contemplative, if melancholy, furniture tester, whose doubts seem to imply plentiful job security.
But in considering The Happy End as a simulacrum, however absurd, of our contemporary employment culture, it takes on a more dystopian tenor. The piece titled “Career Track” ends with an inspiring thought exercise: “Have you ever tried out every conceivable position for the sake of variety?// Think about it: Really, it isn’t out of the question that you might be chosen and might one day sit as a worker at your desk and look out of your open window with no worries, for a while.”
On the dystopian spectrum, this isn’t wandering through a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but there’s something slightly empty about aspiring to such a moment. And yet, who, (back to our contemporary world), after sitting through interview after interview in which you declaim your “passion” for project management or customer service or organized email folders, wouldn’t turn down a salaried moment with no worries?
For me, The Happy End hews closer to a slightly exaggerated, and often hilarious, performance of a depressing reality than it does to a theater of the absurd. The cloud that de la Torre constructs in order to hang over the entire set has its impetus in the original “job fair” in Kafka’s unfinished novel, a novel in which he imagines navigating a hyper capitalist America that he had never actually visited.
For Kippenberger’s part, there’s a certain sense of humor in providing a “happy ending” to a famously existentially dark writer’s work while leaving yet enough space for a poet to add, later, a written theatrical exploration of that space. The space filled in by de la Torre’s book is an entertaining homage to those who first opened that space and a wry, agile lens through which to view America’s contemporary employment culture, which, as many of us know is still (twenty or one hundred years later), absurd.
Torin Jensen is a poet and translator living in Denver, where he co-edits Goodmorning Menagerie. His work has appeared in numerous publications and online journals, most recently Entropy, Deluge, and Cordite Poetry Review. He's the author of "Phase-sponge [ ] the keep" (Solar Luxuriance, 2014).