A Novelist of Privileged Youth Finds a New Subject

The catalogue continues for what feels like days—a glimpse of eternity—but the last box, Waldman makes sure to note, contains “books . . . from the publisher Penguin Random House.”

In addition to winking at the reader, this passage helps to unlock a novelistic ethics. “Help Wanted” washes labor in a stately, almost Steinbeckian light, emphasizing its difficulty but also its dignity. That the prose doesn’t soar is the point: thick with explication, the sentences are sandbags, loaded onto the page to drive home the cumulative weight of work. Waldman knows that workers feel every box they hoist, every unit of merch they dispatch, and she wants the reader to feel those things, too.

One of the book’s early delights is the way it launches a broader social critique under the guise of a fizzy caper. When the members of Team Movement hear that their comprehensively heinous executive manager, Meredith, is up for promotion, their first reaction is rage. Forward-thinking Val, however, intuits that the change would mean less direct contact with Meredith, and her elevation would leave a vacancy at the managerial level, replete with benefits and a forty-thousand-dollar starting salary—a role that would fall to one of them. At Val’s urging, the roaches start holding regular meetings to plan Meredith’s ouster-slash-promotion, knowing that their task will not be easy: in order to secure Meredith the top job, they’ll need to contain her marauding incompetence.

Through this device, Waldman knits her disparate characters together and gives them something their routines would otherwise lack: a plot. “Help Wanted” rotates through the minds of nearly a dozen employees, who sail into focus one by one as they react to the scheme and to the desires and resentments it stirs up. They come thickly alive, by turns ingenious, petty, motivated, yearning, empathic, perversely self-thwarting, and defiantly playful. They watch and judge one another endlessly, spraying characterization in all directions. Their perspectives are supplemented by the narrator’s own—gimlet-eyed yet measured, insistently curious and humane. Val is “a funny combination of childish and practical, a daydreamer, but also the kind of person who’d be good at evacuating people during a mass casualty event.” Nicole is “pretty, in a fresh-faced, apple-cheeked, straight-from-the-farm way. . . . To tamp down such associations, she slouched, wore baggy T-shirts and boxy pants that sat low on her hips, smoked constantly, avoided both the sun and foods that weren’t heavily processed and/or white in color, and generally cultivated an air of boredom and free-floating hostility.”

Meredith, the unwitting linchpin, emerges through the other characters’ composite gaze. She is aggressively, extravagantly, hilariously, and perhaps excessively unlikable. “Nathaniel P.” considered the aughts’ softboi Lydgates, men of whom the era’s frustrated Eliots could reasonably write: “that distinction of mind which belonged to his intellectual ardor did not penetrate his feelings and judgment about furniture, or women.” In “Help Wanted,” Waldman takes on the girlboss. Meredith’s flaws are intriguingly feminized: vanity; superficiality; a changeable, untrustworthy softness. Unapologetically careerist, she transfers from Sales to Movement to punch up her résumé despite preferring customer-facing roles that put her bright smile and “girly, fashionista vibe” on display. Like Emma Stone’s character in “The Curse,” who humiliates a security guard at her clothing boutique by instituting a bizarrely permissive shoplifting policy, Meredith is weirdly lenient, picking favorites and offering caffeine pills to her team.

She can be overly cozy and intimate—cooing at her female staffers and demanding high-fives—and rashly punitive, threatening to write them up for a bad attitude. She complains non-stop to the store manager, Big Will, about “insubordination” but doesn’t take direction; she works longer hours than other executives but only because she shows up late and can’t finish her work on time. Worst of all, she rushes the unloading process, interfering with the natural speed and agility of the line. (Nicole can’t shake a vision of Meredith screaming “Push like you mean it!” like “some kind of demented midwife.”) When Raymond proposes organizing Town Square’s backlog, she is at once too threatened by and too contemptuous of her report to entertain the idea—meaning that the team won’t be able to restock popular items in time for the weekend surge.

But none of this matters to corporate. Meredith, despite her inability to “generate goodwill in the people she managed,” comes off as middle class—that is, she vacations at Lake Placid, not Lake George—which is enough for the top brass to put her up for promotion. The opposite holds true for low-level members of Movement, who are held back, mostly by Meredith, on account of their race or appearance. Raymond was born with an eye condition that he doesn’t have the money (or the health insurance) to treat; Diego is Black and Latino; Ruby is Black. These markers alone engender Meredith’s dislike. She distrusts Diego around expensive merchandise and accuses Ruby of recalcitrance.

Meredith is a disastrous boss because she expends no effort to know or comprehend the members of her team. “You make everything, every interaction, about you . . . whether they respect you,” Big Will says, when he eventually confronts her. Waldman’s own gambit is to locate and lift up the meaningful details, the humanizing ones, that reveal her characters in their full complexity. Even Meredith receives compassion, with her struggles to project authority portrayed as evidence of the double bind of being a woman in the workplace. When the Movement members wish to undermine her, they mock her face, her pitch, her birdlike neuroticism. At one point, Val puts on a “lispy, almost panting, but still slightly whiny voice that rose with excitement at the end of each sentence.” Yet Meredith only worsens her own situation by fishing for compliments and bragging about her kickboxing-toned body. The novel appreciates the pain she experiences without absolving her of her part in it. And because her mistakes exact a heavy toll on the team, it’s hard to prevent your sympathy from crashing fairly quickly against its limit.

By emphasizing the details of her characters’ work, Waldman endows what might seem insubstantial in other hands with depth and shadow. She highlights the stakes of a misplaced grill or a shortage of children’s socks—if Town Square’s numbers go down, more hours may get cut; someone else may lose their health care. Toward the end of the book, Anita, Meredith’s rival for the promotion, spends hours preparing a display table. She arranges a mess of shirts into exquisite piles, fashioning a paradise of ordered abundance. Her work chimes with an earlier scene of Ruby in the warehouse: “Ruby’s long, graceful hands moved with the speed and precision of a piano player’s. Items of clothing, creased as precisely as origami, fell from her fingers, landing seamlessly in organized piles.” There’s something maternal about the women’s ministries; they seem to have travelled, as Dorothea travels in “Middlemarch,” along “the one track where duty becomes tenderness.” When Val ruins Anita’s display in order to secure Meredith the promotion—she “stepped forward and swept her arm across the table,” Waldman writes, “running it like a propeller through a sea of cotton”—the violence of the gesture is genuinely shocking.

“Help Wanted” is invested in the logistics of setting up a display, and it is also invested in the logistics of living, especially on poverty wages. How do you get to work without a car in the middle of a rainstorm? Who will watch your kids? When can you take off and go to the doctor for the note about your asthma that your manager is demanding? Fed up with Meredith, Nicole imagines quitting but swiftly brushes the thought aside: “It wasn’t exactly a good time. Her fiancé Marcus was currently between jobs, and her food stamp card hadn’t refreshed at the beginning of the month like it was supposed to. . . . She had to go to Social Services right away—as in today—to get it fixed.”

It feels right that Nicole’s long-term fantasies would give way to more immediate crises. The operational challenge is a worthy adversary, an obstacle shoved in the way of her cool-girl act, and, when the mask falls, we see her strategizing furiously to support herself and her partner. Instead of examining her life from a great height, Nicole is deep within its folds, figuring out what it’s made of and how to hold all its threads together. For Waldman, the most interesting version of her characters doesn’t exist on a lofty plane far above their money troubles. They reveal themselves in those very logistics, in how they improvise and maneuver, in how they try to make things work.

This idea—that the logistical can be personal—propels “Help Wanted” forward. Waldman doesn’t sanitize the reality of a retail job. The members of Movement are stretched thin, disrespected, devalued, overburdened, and under-thanked. All of them, even Meredith, lead harder lives than they should. But the novel lingers on the devotion with which characters carry out their duties, the superfluous grace that they discover in the performance of rote tasks. Waldman even seems to revive an old agrarian connection between working and writing, between a line drawn by a plow and a line of poetry. When Milo isn’t “trying to break his own records for speed,” Waldman writes, he amuses himself by making “performance art,” selecting boxes in a specific order that tells a story. Crates of peanut butter precede pillowy cubes of trussed toilet paper: “what comes in—food—followed by what comes out.” Tubes of Astroglide are pursued by diapers: “a concise morality play.” As Milo works, the novel pauses to admire him. “He twisted, reached for the next box, pivoted, set the box on the line, swiveled back in a rapid but graceful, almost balletic motion.” The scene mingles the old-fashioned pleasures of competence-porn TV procedurals with the hypnotism of A.S.M.R. videos.

In a bravura passage in “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” Waldman describes Nate staying up all night to draft a book review, abandoning himself to the work with the same fluid concentration that Milo and Nicole sometimes discover on the line. Later, we learn that he summoned his first novel out of a similar trance: “Many of those late nights, when he’d paced his apartment, his mind roaming the world he’d painstakingly created and could finally inhabit—moving within it from character to character, feverishly distilling into words thoughts not his own but theirs—had been ecstasies of absorption and self-forgetfulness.” For most of the book, Nate is like Meredith, self-involved and superficial, too busy scanning his own surface for assets and vulnerabilities to comprehend the world around him. Here, though, he dissolves into the particulars of his work. He gets lost in the weight and thickness of a fictional place, appreciating specific processes and objects and, most of all, characters who are not him. In this, he resembles the members of Movement, doing good work on poverty wages and shaping their surroundings by attending to details that might otherwise go unnoticed. The famous last sentence of “Middlemarch” honors the “unhistoric acts” of that “number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” With her new novel, Waldman underlines their efforts with thick strokes. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *