On a summer’s day Rose Ellis arrives at the job she doesn’t-much-love but doesn’t-hate-enough-to-leave to find that her entire floor will be subjected to an ‘AquaProductivity’ experiment. Stagnating sales at Edinburgh’s MoneyTownCashGrowth are, quite literally, putting her team under water; only increased productivity, it seems, will beat back the rising tide. What begins as a soggy carpet becomes an inundation, the flood tops desks and trousers, and Rose finds herself in a sink, swim, or quit situation. This is the conceit of Christina Neuwirth’s novella Amphibian, published by Speculative Books and nominated for the Saltire Society’s First Book Award 2018, a work that is absurdist but charming, a satirical but humane look at the modern workplace and how we behave in it.
Rose is a protagonist to like. She is smartly self-aware, a little insecure, and suffering from inertia bred by ill- or undefined ambition (leaving for a job in a similar organisation would not be the ‘something better’ she has been six years awaiting). She shares Office 4.02 with the intimidating Siobhan (tall, beautiful, pencil-arranging) and feels her inferiority: ‘With every growing second in her presence she felt herself fall apart more and more, her hair escaping her clips, her clothes accumulating wrinkles.’
For all this, the changed circumstances in the office produce unexpected evolutions in Rose and Siobhan. While Rose, who previously felt herself to be a fragile, fluid identity gathers force, Siobhan begins to disintegrate. Amphibian is a story of adaptation and resilience. Neuwirth draws out Rose’s growing integrity with skill, creating space even within the limits of this short book for her development to seem expansive. Rose, whose brogues and hair clips were donned in the hope of conjuring an identity, begins to become one with her environment, for better or for worse.
Her amphibiousness is emblematic of how the individual accommodates itself to its surroundings for survival. In the early stages of the flood, the sales team on the fourth floor try their best to maintain their professional demeanour. Rose and Siobhan compose a painstakingly polite and helpful email (refined from many vituperative and discarded drafts) in which they request the provision of waterproof footwear by the management. Rose gathers data and compiles a spreadsheet, complete with pie chart and bar graphs representing sizes, colour preferences, etcetera. It’s an unimpeachable act of resistance, an ostentatious waste of company time that mimics and mocks best practice with its infographics. Her colleagues, by contrast, are docile or disbelieving. They cling to the codes of office behaviour, ‘Surely it wasn’t necessary to wear wellies to the office? What would that look like? They weren’t working in an actual swamp, it was just a bit of water! It was important to keep appearing professional.’
Neuwirth’s depiction of the increasing absurdity, and the ever-more laborious somersaults performed to normalise it, is deadpan laced with despair. The maintenance team is called in to nail down free-floating objects (lobster-pots are provided to house computer mice), a middle manager has a sharp suit cut in neoprene, another obtains a shark costume. But amidst the disorientation and the real dangers (that shark is out for blood), the rising tide is also somewhat liberating. Freed from its tank, an octopus makes an especially memorable cameo; water lifts bodies from the ground; a grim solidarity emerges.
While Rose doesn’t actually develop gills, her affinity for water is a constant and she longs for its freedoms from the outset. She surfs at Dunbar at the weekends and yearns to be the skipper of a boat. It is between wet and dry, between water and land, between work and home that the scenario seems most damaging: in her head, as she interacts with her friends and family, Rose wonders whether to disclose details of her working conditions. She hopes that they won’t notice her wet clothes and hair, and takes steps to conceal signs of damp. This is a story of the abusive demands corporate strategy places on its human units and it is dark at its heart. It speaks its truth smilingly, though, with wit, invention, and more fun than anyone ever had at work along the way.
Amphibian is shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book Award 2018. The Saltire Literary Awards will be announced on November 30th.