Still from Pulp Fiction.
“So what then, day jobs?”
“Not in this life.”
When I was a child and Americans asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them, “Famous.” This was enough to elicit laughter from the interrogating adult before they moved on to the next would-be astronaut or dancer in the room. Ethiopians never asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up because they already knew: a lawyer. Everyone in my family told everyone else in my family, Nafkote is going to be a lawyer. I heard it so many times that I believed it. Later, when either Americans or Ethiopians asked me what I was going to be, I’d repeat, “Lawyer,” and everyone (including me) would feel enormously satisfied.
In my third year of university, a teacher accused me of plagiarism. The allegations were untrue (every member of the executive committee agreed that the paper in question was so awful that only an idiot would think it worth copying), and I was declared innocent and allowed to continue my studies. Despite my name being cleared, I was given an F, I guess in case I got any funny ideas.
“Can I still go to law school?” I asked my college dean.
His doubt was tangible, as were his good intentions. “The important thing is, if you really want to be a lawyer, no one can stop you.”
For the first time, I understood two things: 1. I did not actually want to be a lawyer, and 2. if I did not want to be a lawyer, I had to find something else to be.
This was terrifying to me and unthinkable to my family. They persisted in telling each other, when they thought me out of earshot, that I was going to be a lawyer. I spent the rest of my time at university relentlessly and desperately seeking advice from other people. Finally, after a series of events that led to a breakdown in Ghana, one of my professors asked, “You like writing, right? What about that?” It had never occurred to me that an activity one enjoyed could also be one’s career. I applied to writing programs and chose to go to the only one that accepted me.
After two fantastic years, classes were over, and most of us—except those with trust funds or ties to minor royalty—began attending seminars on how to sell a book, how to find a job, and how to maintain one’s sanity in the face of not getting published. I decided to escape adulthood and my mother’s questions regarding law school. First, I took a forty-five-day train trip across the United States, and then I made a completely mismanaged move to Paris. Paris is a wonderful city, unique in many ways, except that it, like other parts of the world, requires legal tender for rent, food, wine, and movies. As I scrolled through job sites and handed out CVs, I had my second revelation, a secret that I’d concealed even from myself: I despised working. I still do.
I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not it. This is not the minor irritation that most adults experience when stepping into the office on a sunny day, nor the fatigue of yet another hour on public transportation. I’m referring to a resentment and rage that grabs my throat each Sunday and doesn’t extricate its crusty claws until six P.M. on Friday. I have on more than one occasion fallen asleep crying at the prospect of work on the morrow. I spent weeks crouching behind my door so that clients would think I wasn’t there and would leave, at which point I’d breathe a sigh of relief and watch Scandal. I once got locked into my apartment and felt a joy like no other because I had a legitimate reason to not be at work. I hate everything about it: small talk, offices (especially open-plan ones), being in a place because someone said so, swivel chairs, arbitrary hours, remembering (but especially forgetting) passwords to document-sharing platforms, team meetings, team bonding. But more than anything, I hate pretending I like these things so as to earn enough money for the activities I actually enjoy, which I can then do only in the too-few hours left to me after my goddamn employment.
Writing is work, too, but it’s the kind of work I love. I love it because it’s mine and I chose it. No one can tell me where to do it, how to do it, or even really when to do it because deadlines have to be agreed upon by both parties. I love work whose value and purpose I believe in. I hate work whose value and purpose can be summed up in a single word: paycheck. The great need I have for said paycheck only deepens my loathing.
Fictional characters never work. Shows like Friends and Sex and the City are notorious for people who talk about their jobs and never go to them, all while enjoying extravagant lifestyles. In movies and books, jobs exist but are rarely mentioned, the actual stories happening outside of their dull parameters. Adventure is not limited to working hours. I’ve always wished I could live in these worlds.
There’s no decade like the nineties for American pop culture in which characters just can’t even be bothered with the idea of paid work, perhaps because the U.S. was enjoying the kind of economic prosperity that felt like it wouldn’t end. (I remember reading Highlights articles that congratulated us kids on being citizens of the richest country in the world.) This disdain for the financially sound might be one of the reasons I’m obsessed with nineties movies, in particular Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The latter’s cast of misfits hold the kinds of jobs that would silence most cocktail banter. (And what do you do? I’m a paid assassin and heroin addict, you?) The former’s protagonist, Johnny (David Thewlis), subjects whoever stands still long enough to diatribes on the fatuousness of the hard-working. The values held by both films seem simple if clichéd: those with real jobs are morally upstanding and impossibly boring.
But amid the one-liners, abandoned bodies, and crimes both petty and fatal, there’s a genuine need expressed by these characters, one that transcends the pecuniary: freedom. No matter how awful these people are—and they are monsters: Johnny abuses women, Vincent (John Travolta) explodes a man’s face and is only concerned about getting the car cleaned up, Butch (Bruce Willis) reacts in terrifyingly similar ways to a forgotten watch and a man being fucked up the ass against his will, Sebastian (Greg Cruttwell) makes Patrick Bateman look mildly quirky—their quests for a twisted liberty spill over the edges of the narrative, as they claw their way past the places, peoples, and rules hell-bent on entrapping them within disciplined webs of respectability.
The straitjackets of these lives begin with their home cities. In Pulp Fiction, Los Angeles is a pastel dump, with brief interludes of seedy tackiness, where chief gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) runs his operation out of a bar whose stickiness you can feel through the screen. When his wife (Uma Thurman) is offered a night out on the town, she chooses a diner whose servers dress as fifties icons and where one can eat a “Douglas Sirk steak” in a plastic vintage car. In Tarantino’s Los Angeles, even the wealthy opt for the cheap, and the few locations that rise above—the Marsellus house, Jimmy’s abode—are soon tainted by blood, vomit, and lines of heroin.
London fares no better. As seen in Naked, it’s always pitch-dark or gray afternoon, and its gloom seems to ooze into Johnny’s filthy appearance.
“Have you had a bath lately?”
“I had one yesterday.”
This confusion between night and day matches the uniform misery of the employed and the not. Louise (Lesley Sharp) is just as downtrodden as Johnny and her never-not-wasted roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). The only difference is that Louise gets to be depressed outside of the house. The women whom Sebastian preys upon are all working when he picks them up (the masseuse, the server at the restaurant where he takes the aforementioned masseuse), and it feels bitterly pointed that financial independence is no refuge from sexual assault: he rapes the server just the same as he rapes Sophie.
With the muddying of what constitutes work comes also the annihilation of home: there is no hearth to justify one’s labor. For almost all of these characters, home is either unsafe, nonexistent, or too confused a concept to contemplate. Johnny flees Manchester for London, only to find that his ex is trying to flee London for Manchester; there’s a killer taking a shit in Butch’s condo as he waits to murder him; Vincent seems to have understood nothing from his time in Amsterdam but appears equally lost in Los Angeles; Sandra (Claire Skinner) returns from Zimbabwe to find her home overrun by a rapist, a nihilist, and two roommates who can only offer tea in the face of catastrophe.
When the characters of Pulp Fiction do finally get down to work, they bring every other kind of working to a grinding, gritty halt. When Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) and Ringo (Tim Roth) decide to move from holding up liquor stores to sticking up restaurants, they put their plan into immediate action by holding hostage the waitstaff and clientele of the diner where they’ve been having breakfast. Aside from the criminal element, this hustle is real; for them, the legally approved hustle is a joke. (See Vincent’s disbelief when Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, says he’s quitting the game—but also his rage when Jules suggests walking the earth: the straight life is unfathomable, but being without dough might be marginally worse.)
Naked seems to concur. The employed people Johnny encounters are damaged, unstable, and wretched. There’s the security guard who shelters Johnny and is married to a woman he hasn’t seen in thirteen years, or the coffee-shop server who lets him bathe and drink in her home before starting to cry, in the throes of an inescapable sadness. (The answer isn’t as simple as not working—Sophie can barely function, and Johnny is hideous in his need to torment those who seem weaker.)
Both movies offer redemption in their own way. In Pulp Fiction, the only way out of drudgery is the miraculous. Jules leaves his hitman ways behind when he decides that God shielded him and Vincent from instant death, and Butch makes it out of Los Angeles only because of a so-incredible-it-almost-feels-contrived situation that includes an encounter with the man who’s trying to kill him, racist gun sellers, and anal penetration. Divine intervention is present in Naked too. For Johnny, relief will come only when the world ends (around 1999, he thinks) and a new version of humanity takes its place on the evolutionary ladder. In the one, the divine manifests itself in life; in the other, extinction.
Each movie seems to suggest that all of us, working or no, are yearning for something holy, something bigger than our puny lives. Perhaps the greatest error is that from a young age, we’re taught to seek that higher purpose in work. Job, then money, then house, then car, then marriage, then kids, who’ll be told to get a job—and so the miserable cycle is repeated. And in 2018, you can’t even depend on that. Countless experts weigh in with contradictory counsel: Sustain your mental health by placing less importance on your job! Your parents were homeowners at twenty; stop eating avocados at brunch! The financial stability of the twentieth century has gone the way of the dodo!
This doesn’t even take into account the writers, sculptors, painters, photographers, and musicians, who in between eating, sleeping, and making money are also trying to make something that resembles art. We live in a time when the traditional rules of employment clearly don’t apply to many and yet are still used to measure human success and worth. (It’s even worse when you’re poor—as Yvon Chouinard notes, “It’s okay to be eccentric if you’re rich; otherwise, you’re just crazy.”) The privilege of picking and choosing jobs belongs exclusively to those who don’t need them in the first place.
So in some ways, movies like Pulp Fiction and Naked were and remain refreshing: they posit a world where your career or lack thereof doesn’t signify anything about you as a person. Working isn’t a virtue or a fault: there’s no position you can get that will guarantee you not being a piece of shit. For these characters, real life occurs far outside the realm of remuneration. Maybe my problem is less that I hate work and more that I want to like my work but was born into a socioeconomic background that doesn’t seem to get to want that. For now, all I can do is survive the work I must do in order to have a shot at the work I love. And one day, maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to make that great leap from crazy to eccentric.
Nafkote Tamirat is the author of The Parking Lot Attendant.
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