Dra– by Stacey Levine

First published in 1997, Stacey Levine’s novella Dra– is a satirical look at entering the work place. The titular protagonist is such an unformed nobody that she doesn’t even get a complete name. Now that Dra– is of a certain age (what age?), she’s been called forth to enter the workforce (by whom?). Almost no character has a name and everything is a bit janky. Scenes play out like a performance in the Theatre of the Absurd. Even the jobs Dra– may choose from, both of which require “the spooning of unhealthy human hair from the floor into refuse containers filled with strong fluid” are nonsensical.

The entire novella takes place in a single weird, seemingly-endless building, but the experience is more like Alice in Wonderland than a job placement company. As Dra– travels around the employment building looking for the Administrator to whom she’s been assigned, she encounters “a passageway with a staircase that did not ascend or descend, but instead lay sideways on the floor,” clear walls obscured by steam, and airplanes flying inside several floors above.

We’ll do strange, even pointless jobs to serve be a “good” citizen, and Levine beautifully satirizes failed socialist economies that create jobs for the sake of it. The pointlessness of many jobs is emphasized when Dra– receives a note in her adventure (much like Alice in Wonderland encountering “Drink Me”) that says she needs to put old metal film canisters into a tube, and that’s it. But the canisters don’t fit in the tube and she’s got a deadline, so first she removes the film from the canisters to shove in the slot, but then:

. . . she began to shove all sorts of broken glass, debris, and dust from the floor into the slot, grabbing anything that came to hand, and then she took the empty canisters, tearing their lids off, and crushed them with her hard shoes, submitting the flattened pieces into the slot, spitting as she heaved an exhausted breath and slid to the floor . . .

Dra– frequently winds up on the floor sobbing. She’s a helpless nobody, and the most influence she exerts in the novella is actually with her name. The hyphen after “Dra” constantly interrupted my reading, making me think I was beginning as aside in the sentence, as hyphens are wont to do. At first, I was annoyed but then realized how clever Stacey Levine is by disrupting her reader. I was directly affected every time I was stopped and confused long enough to have an emotional reaction, much like what Dra– experiences. She just wants to get to her assigned Administrator so someone can finally tell her what to do, but she’s interrupted and befuddled every time she encounters another random employee.

Much attention is paid to need. When she’s in a fit of sobbing and doesn’t believe she’ll find her Administrator, Dra– thinks of a a Nurse, one who will alleviate her lonesomeness. Every time Dra– attempts to find the Administrator or Nurse, she’s led elsewhere by random employees in the endless building. Through the absurdity, I made the interesting connection to all the people that stop me from getting done my daily objectives. They’re everywhere! I’m not distracted much by social media, but I can get lost in brooding while I’m driving,* or reading the news headlines, or fixating on an unhappy person I encountered that day. One unusual email from a person of authority can send me in a spiral.** Levine highlights in an interesting fashion how our needs are sidetracked by fellow humans.

Two things that go together in the United States are health and work, largely because we get insurance through our employers and have accepted that if we aren’t available to work 24/7 we can easily be replaced.*** Levine wisely weaves work and health into an absurd ball of commentary on fulfillment and suffering. Firstly, Dra– decides “not to worry about jobs, since worry was damaging to the heart, brain, kidneys, and stomach; and didn’t employees sometimes die from ailments whose sole cause was worry?” This is the beginning of her journey, when she’s still unaware of employment reality.

But for many people work causes suffering, sometimes mental. Dra– is told by one worker that when they feel like they are going to topple over the edge, they take a pill, and maybe that pill can prevent them from losing themselves to their job. At first, I thought, Of course the author brought up pills; loads of writers do to suggest we’re unhappy and need “fixing.” But a later passage hit me with a zing, in a good way. A doctor in the employment building tells her the reality of health:

When patients ask, “Why, underneath it all, do I feel so bad?” we give them prescriptions, allow them to search the advertisements, read about magical treatments, and even formulate alternate codes for living, yet we never bother telling them: “you have merely been infected by someone very close.”

In Levine’s fictitious employee-building-world, the only people “very close” to each other are co-workers. Think about this during flu season (you know what I’m talking about) and how our shared health issues often stem from the closeness of our co-workers, who function like a second family whether we want them to or not.

But are we treated like family by the company simply because they call us a family? We’re reminded that nothing is guaranteed, even if we’re forced to work. Dra– is told, “[your Administrator] will find you sooner or later, and if you don’t find her, she’s probably dead and you’ll be assigned another.” Levine is an American writer, and though Dra– was written and published before the 2008 and 2020 financial collapses, the author captures the feeling of being a replaceable worker, even if you’re someone in management who may feel secure, even if you’ve been told you matter as an individual.

While I was reading Dra– I had a hard time because I haven’t read an absurdist satire in ages, not since college over ten years ago when I first encountered Levine’s work. Getting back into it was challenging, but when I finished, I re-read the passages I highlighted and found myself sparking at the recognition of genius in the pages. An excellent book, though not an “enjoyable read” for bookish folks looking for plot and character development.


*My community has acknowledged it doesn’t truly police traffic. Many times on my commute I see vehicles run lights after they’ve been red for a long time (not just turned red and the driver ran the light). People will drive around you on sidewalks, drive around you in a left turn lane so they can cut, and completely ignore stop signs. A new law was enacted recently after four children were hit by a young woman driving around a school bus (three children, all siblings, died). The city just assembled a small traffic team, so I’m slightly hopeful.

**I’m working on this, and, weirdly, the pandemic has helped me calm down and take on an “It is what it is” approach to things completely out of my control.

***I’m thankful I do not feel that way at my current job — they honestly treat me very well and I am joyous that I am welcomed — but I felt it for most of my working life and have friends and family who concur.

14 comments

  1. The idea of workplaces being “like family” is so stressful. One of the best pieces of employment advice I’ve ever read was to avoid working for anyone who describes their workplace as a family, because family means high expectations, including evening and weekend time, without financial compensation. Fine in an actual family where there are other compensations, but much less fine for a job!

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    • That is excellent advice. When I worked at the civic theater, the director would say everyone was part of the civic family. Okay, I get that when talking to patrons, etc. because there are a lot of donations of time and money in a community project. But then we would start a meeting, and he would say, “Hi, friends.” Gross. I can’t be your friend if you’re my boss. I can’t be a family if that means pushing me to volunteer AND work.

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  2. This sounds fascinating though I think I’d probably struggle with it. It’s been a long time since I read something really absurdist and even reading her name in your review felt jarring! I once heard that if a workplace advertises itself as a “family” then it’s probably a toxic place to work.

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  3. I have dreams like this novel – tasks that are nonsense and that I am always sidetracked from fulfilling. I don’t know why because my job is not like that at all. Totally agree about ‘family’. it’s very rare to find a job where all that ‘family’ stuff doesn’t just go out the window as soon as they see a profit in downsizing. Another book reviewed by you that I absolutely should read.

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    • Levine’s books are great. I prefer Frances Johnson, which I haven’t reviewed because I read it before Grab the Lapels AND learning about Goodreads. I have these horrible dreams that combine the 11 years I was a professor with my library job. Like, people in the library will start to go wild, and I can’t control them, suggesting I’m losing control of my class, etc. I don’t like to think about teaching having a control element, but it absolutely does.

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  4. holy shit the traffic sounds out of control around your place! I can’t get over how horrific that story about the three siblings dying is, how does a parent move on from that? They simply don’t. Four or fives lives were most likely destroyed that day.

    Anyway, to the book, it sounds really interesting and I enjoy reading commentary about the workforce in general. I’m lucky enough to work in a job that I care about, and I believe I do good work for overall society in my job. Not everyone has that privilege’s though, we just need janitors for some places, and that work sucks, but its necessary. Since returning to work I do feel my confidence has increased though, I feel like a more capable person that I used to be, even though I’m running around more than ever haha

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    • Oh, yeah, the traffic super surprised me. I was telling a coworker on Wednesday that never before had someone passed me on the right until I moved here. She was surprised because she’s so used to it!

      My mom taught me that all work has dignity, no matter the work, so it’s weird to me how people think of physical labor jobs as being unwanted. I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, but I do think there are people who are happy to have a janitor job because it fits their personality or helps them support their family.

      I’m so glad you feel more confident. I never knew you WEREN’T confident — you seem so on top of everything. That’s not to say you have to look strong all the time. You’re amazing no matter what you do.

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