As I was reading Personal Days by Ed Park, I found myself remembering The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. The two books have next to nothing in common, so it took me a second to come up with the link, memory being somehow a step ahead of consciousness.
What it is, I finally discovered, is that each novel is divided into three distinct parts. In The Patron Saint of Liars, related characters each narrate their own third of the book. In Personal Days, the first section is a collective first person / omniscient third person account of the drudgery and drama of office life. The second chunk is not incredibly different from the first except in terms of organization–rather than being structured under subheadings, its mini-sections are presented in outline form: II (A) iii:. The last third is a more radical departure. It is one long narrative presented as an email from one coworker to another.
I started and finished The Patron Saint of Liars on an idyllic beach in Mexico, which makes it all the more bizarre that I look back on that reading experience as one tinged with panic. I loved getting to know the narrator in the first section of the book. When I read on to the second, then third sections and found that they were told in different voices, I went with it, confident I would return, eventually, to that first narrator, a character to whom I’d really become attached. The panic set in when I grew ever nearer to the back cover of the book and it became clear that my first, favorite narrator, wasn’t going to step back up to the forefront. I enjoyed the book as I was reading it, but was furious when I finished. It was like Ms. Patchett had introduced me to a friend and then never let me speak to her again.
Closing in on the back cover of Personal Days, I had stirrings of the same feelings. I’d loved that distant, ironic, hysterical first part of the book. I wanted to return to that perspective and see how the office ended up after I’d spent so much time there with its beleaguered employees. I was starting to get upset.
In that last section, the story spiraled from the realm of droll identifiable office satire into the heights of absurdity. I was confused by the shift, but the momentum was gathering so quickly I didn’t have time to analyze. As the story grew crazier and crazier, speedier, louder, I started to cringe, waiting for an explosion, then, right before the narrative spun completely out of control, Mr. Park paused, took a breath, and reeled in a quiet, remarkable ending.
In the last few pages of the book, I forgot completely what I had thought I was missing. I let myself be pulled inside that email-writing character and suddenly, everything slowed down. I swear to you, there was a moment like the one at the end of “The Dead.” In those first two sections, I thought I knew what Personal Days was all about, but it wasn’t until I reached the back cover that I really understood.