Race and Racelessness in Ed Park’s Personal Days

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A group of relatively young office workers struggle to make sense of their lives as their nameless company undergoes economic restructuring.  The workers each have distinct personalities and eccentricities, at least when the story is told from their perspective, but at the same time their antics seem frenzied, as if trying to keep pace with how hard it is becoming for outsiders to differentiate them from each other.  In addition to being classified in ever more overtly random ways in Ed Park's novel Personal Days"In decreasing order of height: Laars, Jack II, Lizzie, Jonah, Jenny, Crease, Pru, Jill" 1these workers find themselves being gradually let go without any overt recognizable pattern. The most noteworthy warning sign occurs when their boss, the Sprout (a nickname derived in this way: "Russell' Brussels' brussels sprouts' the Sprout" [4]), praises one of them for doing good work.  Such praise usually precedes a re-shuffling of the work area and an eventual dismissal.  The only other pattern to the firing seems to be the letter "J."  Those whose names begin with this letter are the ones gradually being let go as the novel begins.

With this drama at the foreground, it may not be surprising that Personal Days pushes the topic of race into the background.  The following is one of three explicit references to this topic in its pages:

Every payday we go to Henry in HR and he asks who we are, last names first, though he should know us by now.  We oblige him, as if bringing up the issue would risk stoppage of pay. . . .  Still, Henry invariably confuses the two Asian workers, giving one the other's check before stopping himself, finding the right one.  He also did this to the two black workers, before one of them was fired.  He used to apologize for the confusion but even he realizes how ridiculous it's become.  (40)

As this passage illustrates, the Asian and black workers alike share a sameness that defies individualization.  Even with the aid of a ritual that otherwise feels pointless, the Asian and black workers cannot be told apart from their fellow workers.  In Henry's eyes, they are Asian or black first, individuals second.  And, yet, even this obvious racial faux pas is noted and then put aside as something that, lacking in sense like everything else in the office, hardly seems worth complaining about.

Indeed, for the workers, being Asian or black may almost seem an advantage in a situation where Henry must ask each employee his or her name every week, no doubt because he can't tell any of them apart regardless of race.  At least the recognition of racial difference helps to make two of these characters stand out in some way and not be so easily confusable with everyone else in the office, even if they have to be confused with each other in order for this to happen.  Amidst the conformity and resulting anonymity of the workplace, nonwhite racial status becomes one of only a handful of markers that provides a little relief.  And this paradoxically makes group membership in a minority race a potential ally to individuality rather than its foe, as occurs when one of the workers develops a crush on a woman in the elevator: "I can't stop thinking about Half Asian British Accent Woman, he e-mails Laars at 3 in the morning" (31).  Notably, the one character who is held up as someone strikingly and singularly desirable is also the one character identified by her race and not by her name.  That she also works on another floor in the building and speaks with a foreign accent adds to her allure, an otherness that the workers telling this story do not have in abundance.

The fact that the reader is not told the race of most of the characters in the novel, even after letting it slip that some are black or Asian, disrupts the assumption that, if one does not know the race of a character in a novel, then he or she is probably white.  Park brings this assumption into delightful relief in the last section of the novel, when the first-person narrator Jonah reveals his own racial status.  Jonahwho is typing a long email in the dark with a broken delete and period key, inadvertently rendering his prose into a magnificent, densely layered modernist formal experimentobserves, in another rare reference to race:

the weird thing was that the Sprout had opened up to me in the first place, years ago, because he had inexplicably gotten it into his head that I had a daughter, and thus assumed I was a family man like himself, and as time passed it became harder to inform him that I was in fact not only childless but morbidly single, and it became near impossible to come clean after he confided in me that he and Sheila had been trying to adopt a second child, a little girl from China (a companion for their first child, half black like me). . .  (199)

The parenthetical manner in which Jonah reveals his race ("half black like me") teases the reader with a revelation that might understandably come as a surprise, since there has been no hint up to this moment that Jonah is anything but white.  This revelation effectively undermines assumptions of an unmarked whiteness, radiating outward from Jonah's racial status to cause the reader to consider whether the Sprout or his wife or neither is black.  For that matter, is the adoption of "a little girl from China" by the Sprout and Sheila necessarily a transracial adoption?  Couldn't the Sprout and/or Sheila themselves be Asian?

These tantalizing, and unanswerable, questions lead to three crucial points about Ed Park's treatment of race in his novel.  First, Personal Days poses the interesting possibility that the de-emphasizing of racial differences might serve the same purposes as hyper-emphasizing them.  For, if the corporation can be said to stand-in for the state in the novelthe office narrative providing in its idiosyncratic way an allegory about governancethen what such an allegory points to is a system that is at once all powerful but also evacuated of responsibility.  Power itself, to cite Foucault's writings on this subject, does not reside in any single figure.  As a result, each of the characters are caught in a system of governance so total that it defines who they are, gives shape to their everyday experiences and their major social relationships, and provides the means for their basic sustenance in the form of a salary and benefits.  There may be a certain post-Foucauldian (which is to say, post-welfare state) element of contemporary neoliberalism, however, in the way they experience this all-permeating power as an alien intrusion into their lives because it might at any moment deprive them of these things without any relation to the quality, or importance, of their work.  While most, if not all, of the employees in the office obsessively polish their resumes and discuss career alternatives, they live in fear that they will be let goand this is not, it is important to add, an irrational fear, for any prolonged unemployment in the United States now represents not only the loss of an income, but also the loss of access to health care, retirement savings opportunities, possibly a home if one has a mortgage, and even a social identity.

It is this aspect of the novel that makes it such a witty reflection on a moment of economic crisis, when no jobs seem safe and when no one wants to take personal responsibility for the economic restructuring that is taking place.  The novel literalizes the fears generated by this kind of crisiswhich has only achieved the status of a crisis because high unemployment rates have finally caught up with middle class, professional whites who have in the past thought themselves immune from what has long been happening to communities of blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and some Asian ethnicitiesby making it impossible to figure out who is in charge.  The following is the most the reader finds out about the company, suggesting, with a bow to Frank Norris (and maybe Japanese anime), how even ownership of the company itself is defined by incertitude:

In addition, while the Sprout is the workers' immediate superior, he seems shadowed by Maxine, a person whose authority at least equals if not exceeds his.  And in a position of even greater power exists an even more shadowy figure known only, with a nod to Kafka, as "K.," who eventually turns out to be just as vulnerable as anyone else in the office.  By the course of the novel, all threethe Sprout, Maxine, and K.have been let go.  There is nobody in the office who cannot be fired, even while it remains unclear who exactly makes the decision to fire.

This shared vulnerability, and shared ignorance about who is in charge, accentuates how each person is like everyone else in Park's novel, so much so that all the office workers ultimately become interchangeable.  De-emphasizing racial difference helps make this interchangeability possible, which may suggest that a state that legitimates its refusal to take responsibility for the lives that it rules via a disavowal of racial difference is not much different from a state that seeks to control every aspect of its subject's lives.  Colorblindness, then, might be thought of as a managerial strategy that helps make possible a contraction of corporateand, by implication, governmentalresponsibility.

Second, and as a corollary, the dissolution of quotidian markers of identity that accompanies the office workers' alienation generates what might be a countervailing desire for racial identification.  All of the workers lack significant others or, as in the case of the Sprout and a few others, maintain romantic relationships that are strained to their breaking point.  In addition, the novel goes out of its way to emphasize the placelessness of their office building, almost as if their anonymity as workers is mirrored by the anonymity of their work environment:

Our office is located on what must be the least populated semi-wide street in all of Manhattan, a no-man's-land just far enough from two fashionable neighborhoods to be considered part of neither.  Wind gets stuck here.  At twilight, crumpled newspapers scuttle across the pavement like giant crabs.  Plastic bags advance in tumbleweed fashion.  Sometimes it feels like the edge of the world.  (18)

If race ceases to matter or matters less in this novel than in other works of Asian American literatureor even in other works of American literature more generallythis effect is both generated and redoubled by the characters' lack of interpersonal relationships and, as this passage suggests, a sense of place.  While within classical liberal thought such disencumbering might be seen as providing the possibility for individual liberationa sense of self that is not barred by extra-subjective identificationsthis is explicitly not the case with these workers, who feel nothing but terrible psychic pain at the twin loss (which is simultaneously made bearable and amplified by their humor about it).

If anything, these workers yearn for the possibility of such extra-subjective identifications.  They yearn, that is, for a feeling of belonging to some larger group and place, a mode of yearning to which race thinking explicitly appeals.  They huddle together during their breaks and after work, forming into a tightly knit group that clearly demarcates an "us" and "them"something emphasized by Park's unconventional use of first-person plural in the opening section of Personal Days.  This process of group formation give shape to their otherwise meaninglessness lives in the office, affirming a shared experience that those who do not belong to this group cannot appreciate.  While this group has fluid boundaries, the "we" only referring to those who still work in the office, the group nevertheless provides the workers' most enduring form of identification:

People drop off the radar once they leave the office.  Week after week, you form these intense bonds without quite realizing it.  All that time together adds up: muttering at the fax machine, making coffee runs.  The elevator rides.  The bitching about the speed of the elevator.  The endlessly reprised jokes, as it hits every floor: Making local stops.  You see co-workers more than you see your so-called friends, even more than you see your significant others, your spouses if you have them.  None of us do at the moment, though there are reports that Jenny's on the verge.  (14)

This emphasis on an "us" suggests a powerful logic at work in this novel.  The more the workers are made interchangeable, atomized into persons who are equally commensurate with each other and hence equally expendable, the more they resist such an individualizing process by forming a group that recognizes a shared experience.  The group literally becomes what might be called a proto-racean emergent racial group based not on shared ancestry, tradition, or cultural practices but more simply on the day-to-day sharing of a common space and a common social position created by a total system of governance.  Membership provides solace and an important resource for making meaning of a system that so completely dominates them.  Group belonging becomes a form of identification that is made attractive as each worker is disciplined and managed by their workplace.

This leads to my final point about race in Personal Days: its brilliant and humorous critique of racial assumptions is made possible through Park's deft, self-conscious use of the form of the novel.  In other narrative media like comics or film, or genres like autobiography, the refusal to disclose the race of these characters either would have been impossible to achieve or would have called so much attention to itself that it would have become the reader's, or viewer's, primary focus.  The novel, however, has no such visual or generic component, so the revelation of racial heterogeneity amongst the ranks of office workers who might otherwise seem so much alike with one another has a force that is deployed with optimal comedic effect.  (To see this, one might ask how a film version of the novelcertainly adaptable in many wayscould possibly manage the reveal about Jonah.)  What Personal Days thus demonstrates is how important it is that the reader pay heed to literature's forms and to the kind of deliberate aesthetic decisions that enable original ways of seeing.  Without such attentiveness, without such an appreciation for the literary, the reader risks missing what makes this work, and others like it, so fascinating and exciting to encounter.

Min-Hyoung Song is an associate professor of English at Boston College and the editor of The Journal of Asian American Studies.  He is the author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angles Riots and co-editor of Asian American Studies: A Reader, and is at work on a book manuscript tentatively entitled "The Children of 1965: Reading for Race in Contemporary Asian American Literature."

  1. #1 Ed Park, Personal Days (New York: Random House, 2008), 5.  Hereafter cited parenthetically. []