According to the company's tagline, Slack is where the future works. It's also where the future shares non-work-related GIFs, engages in gossip about workplace hook-ups, and muses on the comings and goings of local bodegas. At least, that's how the employees of the New York PR firm at the centre of Calvin Kasulke's debut novel, Several People Are Typing, use the corporate world's instant messenger of choice.
One of those employees is Gerald, a hapless flack whose consciousness becomes trapped in the firm's Slack channel. One minute he's working on a spreadsheet detailing the costs and merits of various winter coats - so, not really "working" working - next minute he's frantically instructing Slackbot, the app's AI assistant, to uninstall himself.
Of course, Gerald's pleas go unanswered and he's left to explain his predicament, via a series of messages, to colleagues who initially think it's all an elaborate ruse to Work From Home permanently.
After a while, Gerald and Slackbot develop a friendship of sorts before a glitch in the system causes things to go even more pear-shaped. Slackbot invades Gerald's body, which lies in a coma-like state in his apartment for most of the story before making a creepy return to the office. If this sounds like fun, it is. Mostly.
Several People Are Typing is a highly accessible comment on corporate culture and the way we work #rn. But is it a novel in the Flaubertian sense of the word? The critic James Wood wrote that Flaubert's influence on the form is so familiar it's essentially invisible.
"We so expect it that we hardly remark of good prose that it favours the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary."
Wood goes on, but you get the point. Most of the things we've come to expect in a novel are absent in Kasulke's book. There's no narration here, first person, third person or otherwise, and the story is told entirely through pithy, lowercase instant messages. It's an interesting approach, and a risky one.
Several People Are Typing comes dangerously close to feeling like a McSweeney's column that runs several thousand words too long. Fortunately, there's just enough to laugh about - and think about - in amongst the :thumbsup: and :dusty-stick: emoji code to redeem it.
As a novel, Several People Are Typing is not especially satisfying. But if you think about the book as a primary an artefact that reveals how the professional class worked - or didn't work - at the dawn of the 21st century, it's hard to fault it.
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