“Underground Time” by Delphine de Vigan – A Vivid Novel about Grim Office Politics

“Underground Time” by Delphine de Vigan   (2009) – 257 pages

Translated by George Miller 

 “Underground Time” by Delphine de Vigan is a novel about one of the most severe hidden problems of modern life, a problem that is hardly spoken of yet has devastating effects on many people.  That problem is harsh company or office politics.

  In a well-run company or office, everyone works together for the success of the group.  Each person from the bottom to the top has a role to perform, and management is there to make sure that each person is treated with respect and that everyone works together to achieve the goals.

 That is how a well-run company or office performs.  However there are many, many companies or offices which are not well-run, that are in fact poorly run.  What happens in a poorly run organization?   Managers are allowed to play favorites.  Some of their employees, their pets, get preferential treatment and are allowed to get away with just about anything while other employees are ostracized, shunned, treated unfairly because they are not the bosses’ pets or are on their bosses’ ‘shit’ list.

 All the employees can see what is going on in their department, but there isn’t much they can do about it.  The bosses’ preferred employees get to lord it over everybody else.  The people who see what is going on can’t or won’t speak, because they want to stay in their positions, and are scared they will lose their jobs.  Morale suffers.  Instead of a team working together, you have a wild pack of hyenas. 

 “Underground Time” is a vivid portrayal of this common problem in modern society.    Mathilde is the Deputy Director of Marketing at a large international food company.  She likes her job and gets along well with her boss until one day she contradicts her boss at a meeting.  From then on, everything changes.  Her boss refuses to talk to her, doesn’t invite her to meetings.  Other employees she thought were her friends shun her.  Pretty soon the boss moves her to an office that shares a wall with the men’s toilet and is far away from the boss’s office.   Mathilde takes her problem down to Human Resources to little avail.   

 Having worked in modern offices, some good and some bad, for most of my life, I was especially happy and gratified to read a novel that deals as directly and vividly with the problem of brutal office politics.   This novel is extremely well-done. 

 There is a parallel story going on in the novel about a man who loves his girlfriend, but his girlfriend doesn’t love him.  However the office politics story really dominates the novel.  Delphine probably would have been better off writing separate novellas for each of the two stories, but I can’t say that the two stories really detract from each other. 

 In 2009, the two novels *Underground Time’ by Delphine de Vigan and “Three Strong Women” by Marie N’Diaye were competing for the Goncourt Prize, the most prestigious literary award in France.  There were other novels on the short list, but these two were the main competitors.  I have now read both novels, and both are excellent.  I myself probably would have given the award to “Underground Time”, because it is a vivid portrayal of one of my main concerns, brutal office politics.  However the 2009 Goncourt Prize went to “Three Strong Women”, and I have no problem with that.  Both novels show how vital and alive literature is today. 

 Thanks to Caroline of Beauty is A Sleeping Cat for bringing “Underground Time” to my attention.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I’m really glad you liked it. I think we need more novels like this. Novels which can say something about our time and do it in a poignant way but are still well written.
    I liked the combination of the two stories because it allowed the bird’s eye feeling and it plays with the romance notion. In a genre novel, they would have been living happily ever after.
    I haven’t read Three Strong Women yet but I’ve heard other people say the same, that the prize should have gone to de Vigan.

    Reply

    • Hi Caroline,
      I agree that we need more novels that deal with the problems of modern life with intensity. Another novel I read this year, ‘Perla’ by Carolina de Robertis, had that same intensity.
      I guess when a novel has two parallel stories like ‘Underground Time’, you expect that they will have equal footing, but here the workplace story seemed to push the other one aside. How these two people almost meet but not quite is supposed to say something about modern life, not so sure. But ultimately for me, the other story does not detract from a very strong novel.

      Reply

  2. Offices are fascinating; this novel sounds fascinating. We were watching Days of Wine and Roses the other night and talking about how stark Jack Lemmon’s office looked. BEing a PR guy could drive one crazy. Of course it’s a drinking movie, not an office movie, but it’s easy to see how office life could bring on drinking.

    Nothing to do with “Underground Time,” but I’ll look for it.

    Reply

    • Hi Frisbee,
      Have you seen another Jack Lemmon movie, ‘The Apartment’? That movie, great movie, also has some office scenes in it. I haven’t seen Days of Wine and Roses. I suppose ‘The Office’ TV show and the movie ‘Office Space’ are good depictions of modern offices. Don’t know if they dealt with the problem of really bad office politics.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Kelly S on October 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    Have you read Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to the End?” I have it on my bookshelf but have yet to read it. It’s also about modern office politics, but not sure how much the themes overlap with this novel.

    Reply

    • Hi Kelly,
      I have read Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to the End”. That novel is a satire of the modern office, while ‘Underground Time’ is more of an intense horror story. I prefer “Underground Time” because of its intensity in dealing with a common little-discussed office problem.

      Reply

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