Novel of the week

Perfect Tense

Michael Bracewell <em>Jonathan Cape, 169pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0224044516

The shift in office dynamics over recent decades is the reference point for Michael Bracewell's neatly crafted short novel, a workplace critique, hung from a few fictional hooks of convenience. It has something of the flavour of Joseph Heller's Something Happened, in which nothing did. Bracewell tips his cap in the direction of character and plot, but the true hero - or villain - is the office itself.

We join the anonymous middle-aged narrator for a single significant day, which is broken up by recollections of previous days in this and other offices. From the claustrophobia of commuting to the archaeology of the desk drawer, he chronicles the impact of technology, efficiency drives and hard-nosed employment practices on the white-collar worker as an individual and on his relationships with his colleagues.

This is a witty, intelligent and philosophical book - almost existentialist, in places, in the nauseously intimate effect that the surroundings have on the narrator. When he abandons his journey to work and tries to phone in with a lame excuse, even the telephone kiosks seem to conspire against him. He goes from one booth to another, his suffocating anxiety and guilt so magnified by ill omens - an impossibly heavy door, the background din of traffic, vandalism, a stench of urine and excrement - that, although he is now genuinely unwell, he is almost incapable of making the call. Elsewhere, in a job interview, he suddenly feels "tethered to the here and now by nothing more than a spittle-thin line of concentration . . . simply floating, on a kind of space walk".

At times, however, the descriptions of the people he works with, or encounters, are laboriously intricate. And telling analysis tends to mutate into pontification. All romantics are pornographers at heart, we are told; the city is a machine for living, the suburbs a machine for dying. And when the narrator describes the four assistants in his office as "representatives of a generation rather than individuals", he betrays the stereotyping that informs too much of what passes for insight. Workers, bosses, commuters, London itself - he conveys the impression that he has them all sussed.

Even so, Bracewell is a graceful, economical writer and, on balance, a shrewd observer. It seems likely that much of the material is drawn from the filing cabinet of bitter personal experience. Word has it that he quit London some years ago, and presumably he no longer works in the type of place that inspired this book.

If Perfect Tense is Bracewell's swipe at a life he left behind, good luck to him. While it stops short of being an expose of the evils of corporate capitalism, it is none the less a caustic and often very funny appraisal.

Office workers who read this book might feel so queasy that they have to take immediate long-term sick leave; and those of us who used to work in offices will be grateful we escaped. Or, perhaps, wistful about the way it was before "work" became "work!". When I started my first office job in the late 1970s, we used to go to the pub at lunchtimes. In slack periods, I would ring Dial-a-Disc, notepad and pen to hand in order to appear busy. People would dawdle at the coffee machine for a chat. Thatcher, the recession and the importation of US management methods put paid to all that. And look at us: aren't we all so much happier for it?

Martyn Bedford's novel Black Cat is published by Viking (£9.99)