The year my second book, Publish and Perish, came out, I took a job as an office temp for a large Texas state agency, working for eight dollars an hour. This was one of the inevitable low points on the sine wave of my career, a boring day job being the default mode of a midlist writer’s livelihood. Still, I had never worked in an office before, and the experience was more exotic than humiliating. Within a day of finding myself in a cubicle for the first time in my life, I was taking notes like an anthropologist about the strange folklife of the office—PowerPoint, anyone? Secret Santa?—and within a week I was planning to write about it.
I had an epiphany one soporific mid-morning when I stood up in my cubicle to stretch myself awake. Turning slowly in place, I scanned a complete 360 of the cube horizon. The scene was slightly underlit, and while I could hear all sorts of human activity—talking, phones ringing, keyboards clattering—I couldn’t see another living person. I felt as if I was working in a room full of ghosts. The alienation of cube life was suddenly revealed to me as something gothic, a variation on the creeping dread of a Poe character. I could be walled up alive inside my cubicle and no one would even notice—the Cube of Amontillado. Immediately I dropped to my seat and jotted down a paragraph that appears almost without revision in my new book, Kings of Infinite Space.
I was already well primed for this epiphany. For my whole career as a fiction writer I had tiptoed through the minefield between literary fiction and genre fiction, but it wasn’t until my second book that I found my literary voice by combining academic satire and gothic horror. It was a happy accident: having run myself aground on a historical novel, I set out one Halloween season to write a horror novella, just for fun. Without thinking about it, I made the main character an academic and included a number of snarky jokes about academic life; it wasn’t until I had finished that I realized I’d created my own Frankenstein’s monster of a story—David Lodge’s head stitched onto Stephen King’s body. The result both frightened and amused my friends, so I wrote two more just like it, which together make up the three novellas of Publish and Perish.
In the book I was writing when I took The Lecturer’s Tale, I was using the same hybrid of horror and satire more self-consciously to say something about the war between literature and literary theory. And even before I started writing it, I knew that Kings of Infinite Space was going to be another nervous tiptoe between the mainstream and the fantastic, this time on the heels of Kafka and Poe. I’ve always thought of them as peas in a pod: heat up Kafka’s prose a little and you get “The Premature Burial”; cool off Poe’s just a bit and you get “In the Penal Colony.” Kafka was a gothic modernist, after all, and Poe was alienated before alienation was cool. But the main thing they share is a bleak sense of humor. I realize neither is generally thought of as a laffmeister, but the idea behind “The Metamorphosis” is fundamentally a comic one, with a fair amount of flat-out slapstick in its execution. And Poe’s best-known stories are basically sick jokes—“The Cask of Amontillado” is a pretty funny story, really—and I can see as if in a mirror the mischievous grin he wore as he wrote.
So I knew from the start that Kings of Infinite Space would have a supernatural element, partly because I love horror fiction for its own sake, but also because I knew that to write realistically about office life, I had to write horror. And Iknew it would have to be funny, because my two masters had taught me that one way to confront the unbearable is to slip a rotten banana peel under it. Luckily, I already had an appropriately foolish and alienated main character in Paul, the feckless failed academic of “Queen of the Jungle” in Publish and Perish. I don’t write autobiographical fiction, and originally I’d made Paul as big an asshole as I could—he cheats on his wife, he lies to his lover, he drowns a cat in a bathtub. Even so, I came to think of Paul as my evil stunt double, through whom I could do things I would never dream of doing in real life. So I set out to humiliate him further—for the sheer fun of it, really—by giving him my boring temp job and my geriatric Dodge Colt.
In the meantime I returned to work on The Lecturer’s Tale and letKings of Infinite Space marinate in my lizard brain for a couple of years. When it came time to write it, I was riding a crest of my career sine wave, and I composed the book very quickly. WritingThe Lecturer’s Tale had been laborious—most of its characters stand for some idea or tendency, and the book was constructed as a series of increasingly extreme set pieces—but with Kings of Infinite Space, I wanted to return to the uncomplicated thrill of storytelling. The story takes place a few years after “Queen of the Jungle.” Paul, his academic career dead, is living alone in a cheap apartment in Lamar, Texas (my skewed version of Austin), and working as a temp typist for the Texas Department of General Services, or TxDoGS. As Paul struggles to stay awake in his cube, three strands of the plot pull tighter around him. One strand is Paul’s surprising love affair with the mail girl, a sharp-tongued Oklahoman named Callie. At the same time Paul finds himself wooed by a creepy trio of co-workers—a retired military man, a Pat Boone–ish evangelical, and a sullen, sex-obsessed young man—though why they’re wooing him isn’t clear at first. Finally, Paul is increasingly alarmed by a series of odd events at work—strange noises in the ceiling, a mysterious death in the next cube, and unsettling visitations by bloodlessly pale guys in white shirts and ties. On top of all this, Paul continues to be haunted by Charlotte, the cat he drowned in “Queen of the Jungle.” It all comes together in a blood-and-thunder climax featuring ritual human sacrifice and a fight to the death with office equipment.
The book also includes a heaping helping of pastiche, with elements inspired by H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau, the fairy tale “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and the old Hammer film Plague of the Zombies. Wells in particular was my guide as I walked the line between serious and sensational. In The Time Machine, Wells the social philosopher clearly intends the Eloi and the Morlocks to stand for the split between consumers and producers, but at the same time Wells the entertainer delivers the goods, as the Time Traveler battles the bloodthirsty Morlocks in the dark. Even a lurid old film like Plague of the Zombies has a not-so-subtextual element of allegory, as a corrupt English aristocrat turns villagers into zombies so he can work them to death in his mines. In my book, the strange, pale men shadowing Paul have several possible allegorical uses, but I decided early on not to push it. It’s all a matter of emphasis, of course, and I chose to concentrate on the story and let the subtext fend for itself.
There’s an argument in defense of the fantastic that references great writers who have used it—Poe and Kafka, op. cit., as well as Hawthorne, James, Wharton, Borges, Marquez, Rushdie, John Crowley, etc.—but literary influence is more complicated than that. My sensibility has been shaped as much by movies and television and pop music as it has by books. My idea of satire is equally indebted to Twain and Randy Newman, my faith in the absurd to Kafka and Monty Python, my fascination with the gothic to Poe and Joss Whedon, the auteur of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If Kings of Infinite Space stands for anything more than the thrill of a good story—it is, after all, an office comedy with zombies—it stands for my belief in the evocative power of the fantastic and in the high seriousness of dark comedy, not as sugarcoating for a difficult message, but for their own sake, offering catharsis through chills and laughter. My favorite story about Kafka is told by Max Brod, who said that Kafka could never read aloud from his own work because he laughed too much, and he never laughed harder than when he read the end of The Trial, as the knife is twisted in poor Joseph K’s heart. To put it in the pop vernacular, he thought this shit was funny, and, God help my trash-corrupted soul, I think so too.
Paul was still spooked by the eerie invisibility of most of his coworkers. Spread out before him in the weird, undersea light, the gray metal strips on top of the cube partitions outlined, like a map of itself, the labyrinth of right angles in all directions. A few items stuck up above the cube horizon—a row of fat red ring binders across the top of a filing cabinet, a lonely cactus in a green plastic pot, a schoolbus-yellow hard hat, a softball trophy, a pink plastic pig. What Paul could not see from where he stood was another single living human being, yet he heard the clatter of computer keyboards, the rhythmic burr of a ringing phone, the squeaking flex of an office chair. He heard the whirr of the printer and the buzz of the fax machine, the rumble of a drawer sliding out and sliding in. He saw the flash of the copier on the suspended ceiling and heard the beep of its buttons and the whine of its carriage shuttling back and forth. He heard the hard-drive purr of a PC. The clatter of a phone returned to its cradle. A laugh. The thump of a stapler, the snick of a ballpoint, the rattle of paper, the bass crepitation of the mail cart against the carpet. All of it, every rattle, click, and chirrup, without being able to see a soul. It was like being surrounded by ghosts, and Paul knew a thing or two about that.
Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.