In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, the late anthropologist David Graeber described a particular type of employment: “If the position were eliminated, it would make no discernable difference in the world.” A bullshit job, he writes, is “so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good reason for him to be doing so.” This kind of worker abounds in American contemporary fiction, including Hilary Leichter’s Temporary and Halle Butler’s The New Me. The jobs are painfully dull and sometimes exploitative; the workers stuck in them are ambivalent and tend to tell their stories with a jagged, irony-tinged edge.
Kikuko Tsumura’s novel There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job explores the same issue very differently. (Originally published in Japan in 2015, it has now been translated into English by Polly Barton.) The 36-year-old unnamed narrator, who has left her job of 10 years because of what she calls “burnout syndrome,” shows up at a temp agency and tells her recruiter that she is not interested in a meaningful job; she just wants an easy one.
So begins a series of mundane gigs: reviewing the surveillance tapes of a writer who rarely leaves his house, putting up PSA posters, writing radio advertisements to be aired on a bus route. At first, the work is described as exactly what Graeber would call a bullshit job: “It was weird because I worked such long hours, and yet, even while working, I was basically doing nothing.”
But this is a portrait of a life filled with the vibrancy of exactly such nothingness. She finds herself treating every task and interaction with care. When she begins writing copy for a cracker company, she falls “head first into thoughts of rice cracker packets,” and as deadlines approach, the thought of submitting mediocre work upsets her, not because she is afraid of her boss but because it doesn’t seem like the honorable thing to do. Her thoughtfulness becomes more proactive, too. The poster job becomes an undercover mission to infiltrate a local organization; administrative work at a public park turns into a search operation for a man who has gone missing. It’s not clear whether those around her really need this much investment from her—in some cases, her employers are baffled by it. But making these sorts of commitments against ambivalence seems crucial to how she lives her life.