Friday, March 22, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Office - Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown is best known for his science fiction and mysteries, of course, but he also wrote one mainstream novel, and it’s now available in a 60th anniversary edition that came out late last year. THE OFFICE, published originally by Dutton in 1958, has some autobiographical overtones—the office boy narrator is named Fred Brown—but as Jack Seabrook points in his afterword to this edition, the novel is almost completely fictional. It’s the story of the eight people who work in the office of an industrial jobber in Cincinnati, a company that sells supplies to machine tool manufacturers. That’s it as far as the plot goes, just the stories of these everyday people and what happens to them over the course of two years in the 1920s.

THE OFFICE is a very old-fashioned novel and reads at times like it was written in the Twenties instead of taking place then. The narrator is very omniscient, taking part in some scenes but knowing everything there is to know about others that take place when he’s nowhere around. The pace is very slow, the plotting mundane (except where it takes a couple of lurid turns late in the book), and Brown doesn’t just break the rule about showing and not telling, he demolishes it. This book is all about telling and revels in it.

The thing is . . . man, he had me turning the pages. After the leisurely build-up, I raced through the second half of this book, compelled to find out what was going to happen. I credit Brown’s skill in creating these characters for that. Yes, there’s not much that’s out of the ordinary about them, but he does a masterful job of showing that every ordinary life is filled with its own drama and suspense. And in showing that, he creates some very poignant scenes.

You know me, I love action. What little there is in THE OFFICE takes place off-screen. Doesn’t matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this book anyway. It was a labor of love for Brown, who worked on it for years in between writing other things. It was also, not surprisingly, his least successful book as far as sales. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best book I’ve read in a while, and I give a very high recommendation.


Jerry House said...

I agree, James. A wonderful book! I always wondered why it was not released as a mass-market paperback.

Todd Mason said...

Presumably because it was such a slow-seller in hardcover. And Brown died before the more literarily adventurous editors were usually given their head in commercial paperback publishing, in the ' least when dealing with a "murder mystery/sci-fi" writer such as Brown.