I never imagined reading about odd jobs would be so fascinating
Every year, with varying degrees of success, I try to take on a reading challenge with the intention of diversifying my reading life.
This year, I’ve once again decided to attempt the Book Riot Read Harder challenge, a list of tasks intended to get you off your beaten path, picking up titles you normally wouldn’t.
One such task, “read a non-European book in translation,” brought me to Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job.
When the book arrived on my doorstep and I unboxed it to find a 400-page paperback staring at me, I wondered if I could even finish such a book.
In my mind, for some reason, the phrase “book in translation” had been tangled up with early semesters at college pursuing my literature degree. Memories of Gilgamesh and middle English stanzas of The Canterbury Tales caused me to brace for a slog of a book.
What I encountered, however, was anything but boring.
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I can’t say for sure that I’ve read many books that center entirely upon a person’s working life, their time spent on the clock. In fact, work often becomes background to plot elements that center around other aspects of a protagonist’s life. Given that many of us work 40 hours a week, at minimum, this strikes me as odd now that I reflect on it.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, as its title suggests, centers almost entirely on the unnamed protagonist’s working life. Told in the first person, the book brings us into the narrator’s innermost thoughts as she pursues a series of odd jobs in an effort to avoid the burnout that caused her to leave her previous field.
It’s the narrative voice that makes this book so imminently readable. Though she asks for an easy job close to her house, without reading or writing required, we see time and again that the narrator can’t help but become overinvested in her work.
She observes her colleagues, trying to make out whether they are good people, and how she might be the best at whatever strange tasks she’s set out to do. From job to job, she strives to uncover a deeper purpose.
If the entertaining and singular narrative voice wasn’t recommendation enough, each job is stranger and more niche than the one before. These peculiar situations provide the momentum in the story, as you work out the true intention behind each peculiar job posting along with the narrator.
She writes factoids on rice cracker wrappers, scripts bus advertisements, and sits in a hut in the woods perforating tickets, all while considering whether there is a deeper meaning to the simple work she’s tasked to complete.
We almost exclusively follow her time at work, with life outside the workplace barely mentioned — a whole day off is dismissed as inconsequential, giving us a sense of the obsession with working life that led her and many of her predecessors to burnout.
In this way, the novel provides a commentary on the culture from which it comes, one that prioritizes work above personal care until such a time that work must be abandoned entirely to nurse wounds.
As someone who has worked full time for a number of years, I found myself nodding along in sympathy as our narrator keeps finding reasons why each particular job may not be ideal after all. And yet, work on she must.
“I knew that however much of a bind I might have felt my current situation to be, it didn’t alter the fact that I had to keep on working, which meant I had to keep on moving forward.” (There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, p. 149).
For all the sense of obligation that comes with pressing forward in work, we begin to understand that the narrator hopes to find meaning through even these strangest of jobs. As strange occurrences arise, she tries her best to press on and get to the bottom of them, until the time comes to once again ask for another so-called easy job.
At times, this pattern got a bit frustrating, as I felt just like the narrator becoming invested in the peculiarities of a particular position, only to be disappointed when she left it behind in pursuit of something entirely different. After the first couple of jobs, the transition became easier, but I still felt a bit sad at each shift.
If anything, this speaks to how fascinating the author manages to render each new setting and its characters. For all my trepidation at the start, 400 pages ended up feeling like nothing at all as I eagerly turned the page to see what strangeness would next ensue.
For such a lengthy book, the ending itself felt perhaps a bit abrupt. I’m still pondering the ultimate journey of our narrator and whether I believe her experiences logically led her there.
Then again, perhaps I wasn’t ready for this bizarre and fascinating book to end, wanting to journey through stranger and more niche job postings still. At times I felt a bit overwhelmed while reading, steeped as this book is in burnout culture and the way that we ask our jobs to bring us meaning, often at the expense of other aspects of our lives.
As many of us transition away from working at home and the elusive phrase “work-life balance” looms in the rear-view mirror, it felt all too real to read about a person we get to know almost entirely through her working life.
For all that, I immensely enjoyed this book and suspect I will be thinking about it for quite some time. I highly recommend giving this one a go, whether or not you’ve got a reading challenge checkbox to tick off.
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