Ah, the office novel. The literature of the workplace belongs to our time just as the comedy of marriage belongs to the late 18th century and the social-realist novel to the late 19th. Three new novels offer a fresh take on the genre.
The opening pages of Robert Glancy's "Terms & Conditions" (Bloomsbury, $26) are fantastic: gripping and sinister, with a queasy moral vertigo. A predatory contracts lawyer named Franklyn Shaw finds himself awakening from a coma and into a full-blown state of amnesia. As his past comes slowly into focus, Frank, as he is known, is horrified to learn that he was nothing more than a soulless mercenary -- and finds himself "starting to understand what it was like to stand on the chipped edge of madness." As his personal and professional relationships spin out of control, Frank finds himself making some agonizing re-evaluations of his life's priorities.
Unfortunately, Glancy is unable to capitalize on his promising setup, and the narrative gradually disintegrates into a series of seize-the-day bromides; the mechanical plot takes too long to creak into place. The gimmick of having each chapter take the form of a "terms and conditions" clause, complete with qualifying footnotes, is amusing at first but is not innovative enough to rescue the novel from its obviousness.
Those readers who don't find fictional law firms sufficiently depressing or enraging can turn instead to the portrait of academia in Julie Schumacher's hugely entertaining "Dear Committee Members" (Doubleday, $22.95). The inanities of creative-writing programs present an admittedly broad target -- they practically satirize themselves -- but Schumacher still has some good, clean fun at the expense of addled students and pompous administrators. "Dear Committee Members" is narrated through the outgoing correspondence of Jay Fitger, a beleaguered teacher of writing at Payne College, a second-tier institution at war with its own advocates for the humanities.
Professor Fitger's correspondence consists largely of comically superfluous letters of recommendation; he nominates one colleague for a promotion by suggesting that the "bump in salary" will "allow her to avoid scurvy by adding fruit to her diet once a week" while helpfully noting that another appears not "to be addicted to illegal substances before 3:00 p.m." What gives the novel its kick is that the indignities visited on Fitger, from decrepit facilities to a general sense of cultural besiegement, are all too familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with recent developments in higher education.
Amy Rowland's accomplished first novel, "The Transcriptionist" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95) is also set in a very particular kind of office -- a newsroom -- and even more specifically, at what seems to be The New York Times, where Rowland, a former transcriptionist, is an editor at the Book Review. Its hero, Lena Respass, is one of those eccentric loners who carve out a wafer-thin existence at the margin of life in a way that seems possible only in New York City. What little we learn about her -- she is a Southerner who finds it "too painful to think of a time when she believed language could save people" -- expands in our imagination until it becomes portentous.
Rowland deftly maps a very specific kind of urban loneliness, the inner ache of the intelligent, damaged soul who prefers the company of ideas and words to that of people. As Lena begins to unravel the mystery of a puzzling death, she is forced to step out of her shell and form a tentative engagement with the city around her. Rowland seems that rare thing, the naturally gifted novelist; she has a special knack for investing the imagery of urban life -- a blind woman riding the bus, a lion in the zoo, a citywide blackout -- with a dreamlike quality. At one point Lena experiences "a sudden alarming urge to break off a piece of the paper and put it in her mouth like a communion wafer," and that urge -- to make words holy -- is at the heart of this novel's strange, sad beauty.