Olga Ravn’s The Employees, a Review
Olga Ravn’s The Employees seems like a sure bet for fans of strange fiction. Shortlisted in 2021 for the International Booker Prize and described as “a supremely edgy and destabilizing look at sentience, late-stage capitalism, and personal interaction,” by none other than Jeff VaderMeer, it was impossible for me to miss. And I’m glad I didn’t, even if at times it feels like something’s missing.
The Employees consists of micro chapters called “statements” collected by a silent committee ostensibly tasked with observing emergent dynamics (occupational, emotional, perhaps even spiritual) between humans, humanoids, and an inanimate class simply called “objects” aboard the Six Thousand Ship. Each statement is anonymous, so one thing noticeably absent is the perspective of a singular protagonist.
The narrative is fragmented according to the multiplicity of experiences, which isn’t after all as various as it might seem—between them all is shared (non)presence of the company, a faceless, formless entity sharply bringing to mind the centerless corporate fog described in theoretical terms by Mark Fisher and wielded malignantly in the later fiction of Thomas Ligotti. There is also a perpetual tension between the human—the remembered humanity of humans themselves as well as the dreamed humanity of the humanoids—and the Other, a mingling of fascination and dread we’ve come to expect from such ontological borderlands.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve read PKD and watched the Alien franchise—the nonhuman fetishizization of human experience as something possessing enviable depth (which is always our own fetishization of these qualities, a desperate move intensified in the face of human emptiness) is not near as interesting as the description of the objects, and the attention of The Employees is split between these two poles (if it they can be distinguished so clearly at all… one never knows what a second reading might reveal).
Ravn explicitly acknowledges a debt to the art of Lea Guldditte Hestelund for the creation of the objects, and it is a heavy one. Hestelund’s work is a panorama of melting embryonic forms, decontextualized things that appear both vaguely familiar and wholly alien—a white clump that could be a hygiene product but on further inspection isn’t at all, intestinal cylinders that are far too rigid to be anything but unbiological. Ravn’s objects, likewise, appear to reside outside the conceptual gridwork of the social world, evoking Bataille’s notion of “the formless” that, if we were pressed to subsume them into recognizable terms, seem “like a spider or spit.” (31)
If there is a major weakness to Ravn’s book, it is in a palpable anxiety for the reader’s ability to connect, an insistent returning to mundane memories of earth that are charged with a self-conscious (but often beautiful) poetic intensity. “I remember ants crawling up the kitchen cupboard,” one statement claims, “milling around the dribble of fruit syrup from a glass bottle.” (68) Ants to the rescue. Against what? The nonhuman tedium, the evocative mystery of the objects? So many ants, an army whipped to a quiet frenzy with worry. When ants build bridges of themselves to cross small streams, many of them drown in the process.
Ultimately, I’m glad I read The Employees. It is short, therefore the investment is minimal and worthy of the modest return in otherworldly imagery. It won’t grip the reader, but who says a book has to?