Apple TV’s existential office dystopian drama Severance ended on a tension-exploding note (“SHE’S ALIIIIVE!”), which means basically all of us viewers will be holding our breaths until season 2 picks up on the fates of Mark (Adam Scott), Helly (Britt Lower), Irving (John Turturro), and Dylan (Zach Cherry). Despite the series’ premise of Lumon Industries’ radical procedure that cleanly separates its employees into their work/life selves, we couldn’t help but root for the Macro Data Refinement team’s innies and outies. (Well, except for Helena.)
Short of throwing a waffle party, what we can offer for the wait is a reading list that doesn’t have to be hidden in MDR’s toilets: workplace books that hit the same notes as the series. These books (interestingly, most of them debuts) tackle, sweetly and sardonically, the absurdity of work “families”; interoffice romances and odes to Zoom calls; and the strange feeling of knowing your work is very important without actually knowing what it is that you do.
There are even some forbidden Lumon reading materials smuggled up the Severed floor’s elevator, to provide fodder for season 2 theories.
Rainbow Rowell’s charming first novel was written a decade ago, but it has a “retro” feel insofar as it’s set during the early days of e-mail—yep, complete with the hyphen when it was still a mysterious and often awkward part of our workplaces, not yet our personal lives. But the personal and the professional dovetail in this contemporary romance about email surveillance in a Chicago newsroom.
New employee Lincoln is assigned to read newsroom emails that get flagged for salty language or non-work forwards, but instead, he finds himself reading the daily correspondence between friends Beth and Jennifer… so much so that he starts to fall for Beth before he can explain why he knows so much about the ups and downs of her life.
Severance balances the compelling mysteries—like the true identity of wellness counselor Ms. Casey—with the burgeoning romance between Mark S. and Helly R. They’re less Jim and Pam than Beth and Lincoln, because how could they ever possibly be together outside of Lumon? But like Lincoln and Beth getting over the initial awkwardness of their not-quite-meet-cute, we have to hope they’ll find a way.
A group of assistants—who, let’s face it, are treated as less-than-people—have the opportunity to stick it to their bosses by way of an expense report error.
It starts with Tina Fontana, a brilliant executive assistant for the past six years whose competence has trapped her in a role with no upward mobility. When an accounting mistake tempts her to pay off her entire student debt without anyone at Titan Corp noticing, it kicks off an illicit alliance with the company’s other beleaguered, underpaid, underappreciated assistants… and it means that Tina, used to clocking in and out before spending her evenings alone at home, suddenly has (gasp) work friends.
Joshua Ferris’ PEN Award-winning 2007 debut Then We Came to the End is the ur-office novel for the 21st century, distinctive for being written in collective plural from the very start: Our boredom was ongoing, a collective boredom, and it would never die because we would never die. If that’s not Severed vibes, I don’t know what to tell you.
Making the officemates a joint narrator sums up the beehive feeling of work-work-working, even though by the time Ferris’ fictional workspace is telling its tale, they don’t actually have much work left besides a mysterious pro bono ad campaign. Instead, their days are filled with prank wars and competition over the remaining pieces of office furniture—what feels very much like a precursor to MDR’s Defiant Jazz Music Dance Experience.
Leave it to Eggers to skewer Facebook in the early 2010s with this satirical thriller set on a social media company’s campus: the kind of insular, co-dependent community you never want to leave. On top of that, The Circle’s employees practice the radical transparency of broadcasting their every movement, with protagonist Mae Holland working her way up from lowly customer service to preaching how “privacy is theft.”
It brings to mind the slow-creeping surveillance of MDR, from Ms. Cobel spying on Mark’s wellness sessions to Mr. Milchick engaging the Overtime Protocol outside of the office.
It’s no “Praise Kier,” but Kenney’s absurdist collection of poetry finds the rhythm in office-speak like “circle back,” and the surprising moments of connection at the annual holiday party (as told through the police report).
While the series “Zoom Calls in the Time of Coronavirus” will no doubt get readers’ eyes twitching in sympathy, the dark cadence of “Team Building” has a very MDR vibe.
A snippet, so you can see what we mean:
I did not
during the trust fall.
I thought it would be funny.
And it was.
I never thought
you would land
Shockingly, this book is not the source material for the Apple TV series, despite the shared title. However, Ling Ma’s Kirkus Prize-winning debut inhabits the exact same wavelength when it comes to the laughable divide between work/life balance.
Written pre-COVID-19, it’s set in an alternate-universe 2011 in which the fictional Shen Fever becomes a world-ending pandemic, but the way it kills encapsulates the book’s bleakly wry commentary on consumerism: Those afflicted are doomed to repetitive movements, zombie-like, until their bodies cease to function.
Sounds like a dead-end job, right? Millennial Candace Chen is caught in the unique position of being immune to the Shen Fever, but at first simply continuing on with her job at a publishing production company even as the world crumbles around her. Eventually, she joins others who have also avoided the vicious cycle of the Shen Fever’s movements, and they seek out some post-apocalyptic future. But when Candace’s life pre-pandemic was mostly marked by humble, mundane pleasures, she has no idea what kind of future to try and seize for herself.
It was only a matter of time before the office novel tackled Slack. But instead of a straightforward epistolary epic told in the #general versus #catpics channels, Kasulke’s debut veers decidedly into the surreal: Gerald, mild-mannered mid-level employee, has accidentally uploaded his consciousness into his unnamed PR firm’s Slack.
Despite his existential terror and increasingly desperate pleas for coworkers Pradeep, Nikki, and Louis C to figure out how he became a ghost in the machine, everyone thinks he’s just doing an elaborate prank to sabotage their new work-from-home policy. If you were screaming at the innies’ secret Overtime jaunts in the final episodes, you’ll be dying to find out if Gerald ever actually gets to return to his flesh-and-blood self.
It wouldn’t be a puzzle-box mystery series without a bit of in-universe worldbuilding! Partway through the season, Apple released this short “tell-all” by former Lumon employee Peggy K., a.k.a. Margaret “Peg” Kincaid. Or rather, it’s both the outie and the innie sharing Severance secrets with reporters at the Topeka Star.
While Peg as a protagonist has tough competition with Dylan and Irv and the others for our heartstrings, viewers and readers will appreciate how The Lexington Letter fills in some of the show’s lore, from a theory about what the MDR numbers actually mean to a copy of the Lumon handbook narrated by the appropriately infantilizing Severance mascot, Sevy. It’s not Ricken’s The You You Are, but it’ll still spark some interesting thoughts as we wait to clock back in at Lumon.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.