A short review of Jarrod Shanahan and Nate McDonough's novella It's a Tough Economy,
Rule number one when writing book reviews is never to compare the book you're reviewing to two old classics. No one really believes it when you say a new book is a combination of a Pride and Prejudice and Das Kapital. Well, today I'm disregarding that advice.
Jarrod Shanahan and Nate McDonough's novella, It's a Tough Economy, is part auto-biography, part gritty surrealism - imagine Kafka writing Down and Out in Paris in London.
As the story opens up, we meet the protagonist, Jarrod, who's currently out of work and living in squalor in a small, dank Brooklyn apartment. He's a man whose resume “has evolved from a factual representation of my employment history to a visionary piece of science fiction”. And the stress of no work, inadequate food, and tortured sleep has taken its toll.
So when the phone rings in the middle of the night – at least we're led to believe it's the middle of the night, time is a character in its own right in this tale – Jarrod jumps at the chance to secure some gainful employment.
And so begins his descent into a surrealist nightmare where the reader is never really sure what's real and what's imagined – where the waking nightmare begins and daytime drudgery invades the sleeping psyche.
Along the way we meet a seemingly never ending cast of psychopaths. There's a supervisor with a questionable grip on reality, the homicidal boss, and a group of “renegade workers” trying to bring down the company which has offered Jarrod employment. We never discover what has aggrieved these workers or what they want. We do know, however, that Jarrod is caught in the middle with both sides viewing him as little more than a pawn in a struggle in which neither Jarrod nor the reader is ever allowed to fully grasp.
The book is not without its dark humor. Indeed, moments of it verge on the slapstick. However, the dark undercurrent, the psychological made surreal, is never far behind.
It's a Tough Economy is an entertaining read, no doubt, but its beauty lies in the fact that Jarrod's sordid tale mirrors the way many of us experience the job market: a lone individual against faceless, unforgiving forces outside our control. The work we do have controls us not only when we're on the clock, but seeps into that most private sphere of human existence: our very dreams.
The politics of the text vary from the overt to the opaque. At one point during his job interview Jarrod is told, “Ownership is such a shallow concept compared to the love we have for our work,” to which he responds, “But who collects the profits?” At another point we are presented with the image of a maniacal boss shouting encouragement from the back of his limousine as his driver mows down our homeless fellow workers. An allegory for our very own tough economy? I think so.
Are there faults to be found in It's a Tough Economy? It can feel a bit disjointed and the description can be a bit flowery at time. But as a piece of writing – creating mood and affect and doing so in a way that provides a literary take on our position in the labor market – it certainly deserves kudos as a commendable contribution towards what working class literature could and should aspire.
It's a Tough Economy was published by Grixly Press, the illustrator's DIY imprint. It can be purchased on Amazon.com.
Jarrod Shanahan is a writer, truck driver, political activist, and general eccentric living in Brooklyn. He is the founder of Death Panel Press and has contributed to Vice Magazine and number of other publications.
Nate McDonough is an illustrator living in Pittsburgh, where he has released dozens of zines, comics, and books on the Grixly imprint, and the graphic novel Don’t Come Back, on Six Gallery Press. He is a permanent resident at Cyberpunk Apocalypse writers’ house.
Their third collaboration, SOBER TIME!, also on Grixly, will be out in Late 2014.