Everything Carries On

MacKenzie Warren reviews Ben Pester’s Am I In the Right Place?

In a Ben Pester story, if you have to ask the question, the answer is definitely no: that’s just how things work. And by “definitely”, I mean that Pester’s characters typically find themselves not only not in the right place, but in a place so far removed from where they hope to be that it’s often impossible to say exactly where they are or how they got there. In his début story collection, Am I In the Right Place?, they end up locked inside dark cupboards that wipe them out of existence, quarantined aboard trains that operate as self-contained worlds, falling into wounds, devoured by portals, engaged in deliberations about what to do with “The Hole”. The closing moments of the title story encapsulate what readers can expect from this book. When the narrator and his father break into the bedsit of a bully from his childhood, the narrator breaks a hole in the wall, “shanking away at the bricks” until his fingers bleed, and then stares awestruck at where the damage leads him:

I burst through into a tiny cave in the wall. There is something there, in the recess. … Gasping, Dad pulls himself up onto his feet and together we ease out this small oven. This Mondelux single-man-in-a-bedsit oven with rotisserie setting and three other different functions. … As I look behind the oven, I see that it is attached to the wall by a rope of thin steel wires, bunched together to make a thick… root… is the only word for it. … I pull the oven door and it opens in this smooth, greasy way. … I can see a lane, a cobwebbed tunnel, leading into a dark cave. I can see a house encased in ivy. … I see the foggy, drooping eye socket of Sir Walter Scott. … I can see Steven Fry holding a basket of dust. … I can see colours.

Ben Pester, Am I In the Right Place?
Boiler House Press, £10.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Absurdism is without doubt the word for Pester’s work. And it becomes all the more absurd as it flirts with satirising middle-management office culture, but then adds absurdity upon absurdity so that the tone of the satire outlasts the blurring of its target. In a roundabout way, then, it’s absurdism for its own sake, with white-collar japes as a garnish. That sort of thing could grow tiresome over the course of a book, but to Pester’s credit — and owing a great deal to his buoyant style — Am I In the Right Place? maintains momentum from start to finish. It cycles through a whole range of humours, from slapstick to deadpan, from sitcom set-ups to the viscerally grotesque, finally emerging as a book that woos its readers with playfulness but wins lasting affection through its sheer, uncompromising oddity.

The collection opens with a story that raises the bar for the rest. ‘Orientation’ follows a new employee’s induction into an office workplace. Although he is expected to have read all 657 pages of the employment manual, he’s only had time to read the first forty — the overview, introduction, and welcome message, but nothing substantive. Upon arrival, he is shown around by a condescending colleague who literally speaks in bullet points:

“If you hear the fire alarm, which is a constant, high pitch siren, like this:

  • • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooowwwww
  • • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooowwwww
  • • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooowwwww
  • • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooowwwww
  • • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooowwwww
  • • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooowwwww

Then you are to leave through one of the fire escapes and head for that point.”

Afterwards, the employee receives micro-training in how to wash teacups, and ultimately finds himself being duplicated and replaced by a double. This last event takes place when his colleague locks him in a stationery cupboard, at which point the book itself joins him in the darkness via some neat textual trickery: white words printed on black pages.

Similar trickery abounds in later stories depicting similar situations. But it’s the low-level trickery of a wayward line manager fiddling with font effects in Word 97 — and as it gives visual emphasis to words that don’t warrant it, it trains the reader’s eye to see the strangeness surging beneath other words that are unremarkably formatted. ‘Low Energy Meeting’ takes the form of an office manager’s monologue, transcribed verbatim with italicised notes on the general reactions of his unknown audience (“we”), as he offers a jovial update on “the purging of Building Two… after it became the target of a focus beam, we think, from one of the new mountains”. ‘The Siege’ is a transcript, too, but not so much a monologue; the primary speaker is “the Host”, and although his unknown audience (“us”) responds more actively to his words and gestures, those responses are only briefly summarised and effectively stripped from the record of his presentation. In ‘Rachel Reaches Out’, a down-on-her-luck flunky faces disciplinary action for referring to herself as a “tardigrade” in an intra-office DM. Her colleague misreads the message as an attempt at calling him a “retard”, and screenshots of pop-up windows are intercut with the text in ways the highlight the outlandishness of both the microworld of impossibly tiny lifeforms and the bureaucratese of workplace conflict resolution procedures. Then there’s the trickery of “The Hole” in ‘How They Loved Him’: the capital letters and boldface function like the sorts of typographical tics you find in copier room memos, a quirk that by repetition throws a pall of blandness over an instance of phantasmagoria: “We think it can ‘suck in’. It has an inward sucking motion, look, even though it’s completely pitch dark, you can sense a puckering, can’t you? I can.” And the trickery is right there in the title of ‘J If Yes, Please Explain Your Answer J’, as well as in the inane workplace surveys faced by the narrator. The story itself depicts the arrival of a mysterious egg at the narrator’s offices — an egg from which emerges an animal so indescribable, and yet so worthy of affection, that it upends the preformatted survey responses that the narrator has grown accustomed to:

The animal is hard for each of us to describe accurately. We continue using indirect sentiments to express our love for the animal, just as we did when it was inside the egg. … We manage to negotiate pronoun assumptions well enough. The animal seems to identify differently from colleague to colleague, and we don’t pick fights when someone seems to have got it ‘wrong’.

Of the eleven stories in Am I In the Right Place?, the only spots are the two shaggy dogs — pointedly not ‘Sheba’, told from the perspective of a cat. ‘Mother’s Day Card from a Wooden Object’ is exactly that, a lengthy message to the adoptive mother of a toy rather like Pinocchio: “Mother! … It has not been easy raising a wooden object as if it were a human child. Not even a human-shaped wooden object. In this card, which I cannot actually write, but I know you will somehow understand that I intended to be written, I want to acknowledge that.” Despite a promising start and a voice distinct from most of Pester’s other narrators, the story doesn’t evolve into anything more than what it seems to be at first blush. And ‘Lifelong Learning’ has the opposite problem: as its ne’er-do-well narrator approaches a village he learned about in a pamphlet entitled Opportunities for Lifelong Learning, the story ends where it ought to begin. “Based on the reading”, we are told, “the secretive admission policy casts a long shadow over the village. You have to be qualified to live there.” Thus, as the narrator draws near, he anticipates the greeting he will receive:

“Are you?” they will say. “Are you qualified?” You read the criteria, but it was so vague in some places, and so pointlessly specific in others.

Are you feeling somewhat withdrawn?

When did you last make yourself fully understood in a work or a private context?

Is there something you can do to help fellow villagers, for example can you make egg substitutes from flax seed at scale?

Those are interesting questions and it would’ve been interesting to see the narrator wrestle with them, with the oddity of trying to find an appropriate response. But because the story concludes before the narrator really arrives, its absurdism is given a token airing without space for elaboration.

Otherwise, though, Am I In the Right Place? is strewn with gems, stories both darkly funny and properly dark. Together with ‘J If Yes, Please Explain Your Answer J’, the real highlight is ‘All Silky and Wonderful’, a story about a man who falls asleep on a commuter train and then awakes to find himself alone in his carriage, with the train at a halt, while a guard quarantines him under suspicion of, well, something:

“This is difficult to explain, but believe me, I think if you were on this side of the threshold you would see it more clearly. … We simply have a feeling of immense concern regarding those bags [near you]. An existential feeling, it’s called. Like, you could say it’s a bit like radioactive decay. Something resonates in the bones when we look at those bags. I should urgently point out that we do not literally mean radioactive. We are not considering this to be a terrorist incident of any kind. But the bone-level sense of doom emanating from the bags, and from this carriage space generally, does mean we may have to decouple you.”

The story is propelled onward by an escalation of lunacy that meets its match in the anodyne lingo of public service communications. And it arrives at a genuinely touching denouement, as the narrator reaches a hotel and breaks down into tears in the presence of a porter. “I wept more”, he says. “It was pretty ugly really, but in the dark it didn’t seem to matter.” Then, when he apologises to the porter, explaining that he’s just had “the weirdest day”, the porter reassures him with a comment that could just serve as the moral of Am I In the Right Place?, if the book were to have one: “Don’t worry. … Some things happen that just don’t make any sense. But afterwards, everything carries on.”

Pester is an artist of the afterwards. His is an art of what happens in the wake of weirdness, as it recedes from its infractions on everyday tedium — and of the pressure to normalise it, to assimilate it into the familiar, by basting it in the sort of managerial jargon that makes the eyes glaze over. Although the short story is his specialty, he is at his best when at his longest and most episodic; he harvests his absurdism not from the set-up for a series of events, but from the incongruities between events in a questionable sequence. Often enough, those incongruities are very much the wrong places for his characters to find themselves, but the same is rarely true for his readers: as long as we’re able to survey them from a safe distance, Am I In the Right Place? is packed full of good places for readers to be.

About MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.