How do objects in a recreation room incite the transformation of people, who would observe them and take care of them? Olga Ravn’s novel The Employees joins in the literary expedition of revealing the “thingness” of inanimate objects, which is embedded in the form of discontinuous interviews of crewmembers on a spaceship.
Ravn’s book marks an intricate collaboration between the author and the artist Lea Gulddite Hestelund, who asks the author to provide a fiction based on her exhibition in 2018. It’s fascinating to see how a book about objects in the recreation room awakening the reflections of crewmembers stems from an exhibition with several aberrant objects separately displayed in the museum space. Ravn describes that the evocative sights and smells of objects, some of which grow tentacles or lay eggs, intrigues the members on a personal level. One commonality of their observations is that the workers begin to think about their own living experiences, as well as how the objects could be animated and consider their experience of being watched and touched. The author successfully showcases how one could become nostalgic about memories and dreams evoked by particular objects, which crack down one’s preoccupation with daily jobs, and force them to rethink about the value of humanity in an estranged setting.
In a way, Ravn’s touch on how objects raise the feelings of workers reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s story, “The One Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in which the children from a kingdom learn to cherish happiness through acknowledging that there exists a child locked in a basement room somewhere, being rarely looked after, upon which the utopian quality of their city is predicated. How people’s understanding is aroused by the caged child in the story reveals the violence of the human gaze and hypocritic compassion; but, in Ravn’s exploration of late-capitalist corporations, humans are much without control of their observations. A profound example could be how one of the interviewees keeps the pieces of cloth that are used to clean an object, and “lie with one” (37) in the same way as the object would, because it “helps” them inexplicably. The crewmember’s wish to possess the intermediary, the cloth which touches the object, shows how they could be attached to the external sensations that are independent of human awareness. Thus, the objects and humans are put to an equal footing, and the objects don’t need to be reimagined or transfigured to achieve democracy.
Yet, the latter part of the novel becomes more committed to the identity crisis and violence of humanoids, and the anxiety that crewmembers have about their positions in work, deviating
from the exquisite touch on interactions with ambiguous objects in the first half of the book. The personal transformations of characters reflected in the interviews disintegrate into a mundane presentation of the general irritation under an anthropocentric perspective. In fact, it seems that the author is attached to a simple repetitive pattern of humans grasping past memories and affections, while humanoids develop more conscience until the end of the book, where the author enfolds how all the animate crewmembers are exterminated. While Ravn has attempted to depict the progression of subjectivity and autonomy within all the different agents (objects, humanoids, and humans), the outer space mission of the novel may have been too ambitious about encompassing every aspect.