An Avenger's Work Is Never Done

by Arthur B

Thomas Ligotti's My Work Is Not Yet Done has a simple message: the world is hopeless, but losing hope is not the answer.
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There's no question about it: Thomas Ligotti is an exceptional horror author. However, it's also quite likely that he's quite a difficult person to get along with. Certainly, if he genuinely embraces his ideas about the futility of human endeavour, the futility of life itself, and the futility of any effort to find any sort of meaning in the universe, he's going to spend a lot of time being extremely grumpy, and one does get the impression from reading his stories that he's the sort of person that just doesn't like people. To be fair, in an author of Lovecraftian cosmic horror these attitudes are an asset; Lovecraft himself wasn't exactly the most gregarious person in the world, unless you happened to be one of his pen-pals. But this does mean that his stories are more suited to expressing his nihilistic philosophy than actually depicting well-rounded characters, and in turn this has rather limited his output to the short story format.

My Work Is Not Yet Done is, therefore, something of a novelty in his output. It's a novella-length rant, Ligotti venting his frustrations at work; Ligotti has written several workplace-themed stories before, but this one is unique to the extent at which it attempts to develop rounded, interesting characters out of the protagonist's adversaries before they are eviscerated. He does not quite succeed at that. Where he does succeed is slipping a note of doubt into his take on the universe, a hint that although the universe itself maybe nihilistic, a nihilistic attitude to life isn't necessarily the best response. This is an idea that creeps in here and there in his better stories - the idea that the meaninglessness of the cosmos makes the little meanings we attach to everyday life more important, and not less (as Brian Craig also set forth in Pawns of Chaos) - but for my money it has its best expression here. This, at last, is a Ligotti story for people who don't necessarily share Ligotti's view on life.

Our protagonist is Frank Dominio, a minor executive in a monolithic corporation, who is the manager of a small, neglected subdepartment. Dominio and his underlings just want to roll into work, do their assigned tasks, not rock the boat, collect a paycheck, and go home and do all the things that they actually want to spend their lives doing. They work to live, rather than living to work, and Frank sees it as his job to protect them from the predations of those whose priorities are the other way around. To this end, at the beginning of the novel he decides that he needs to actually bring something of worth to the next meeting of the department heads by presenting them with a novel idea for a new product (which is never actually described in detail).

Frank sees the other managers of the department - and most of all the head of the department, Richard "the Doctor" - as a cabal of swine, seven venal little dwarfs intent on scrabbling up the corporate ladder over the corpses of their enemies, and sees his new product pitch as an opportunity to reassert the fact that he can be just as swinish as the rest of them. After a less-than-successful management meeting, Richard covertly expresses somewhat more interest in the new product than he showed in the meeting; in response, Frank begins to wonder whether Richard and the others are plotting to steal his product idea from him. Frank's suspicions are confirmed by a series of odd encounters with his colleagues over the course of the next few days, but as he narrates them we also learn that Frank isn't entirely right in the head - he's definitely obsessive-compulsive, he says as much himself, but there's definitely more to it than that. This is proven beyond all doubt by Frank's response to being fired from the company, which is to make arrangements to acquire a large number of guns and to compose an angry manifesto in preparation for a delightful workplace spree killing.

Before he can go postal on his former colleagues, however, something happens to Frank - something that translates him into a strange state of existence. Wavering as he is between being a very physical and solid agent of destruction, a possessing spirit manipulating others to do his will, and a diffuse presence with the power to warp reality, Frank's unique situation lends him wide-ranging powers of clairvoyance, which allows him to simultaneously keep an eye on Richard, the other submanagers, and the police as he goes about his terrible task. Although the precise nature of what's happened to Frank is only laid out at the end, he's aware that he's somewhere between life and death, but rather than contemplating his end and looking back on his life he is intent on one thing and one thing alone - using his newfound powers to construct exquisite deaths and fates worse than death for those he believes have wronged him. And he's not stopping until his work is done.

The office interactions Ligotti writes about are sufficiently authentic to convince me that the novel consists of mild venting on Ligotti's part, much like how Ramsey Campbell wrote The Overnight to express his frustrations stemming from his time working the shop floor at Border's. But there's a bitterness that saturates My Work Is Not Yet Done which wasn't present in The Overnight; whilst Campbell had plenty of bile to direct at the management practices at Border's, he depicted the front-line staff with a certain warmth which makes it clear that he's not depicting them being overwhelmed and destroyed by a blind occult force out of any sort of personal malice towards them. One doesn't get the same impression with My Work Is Not Yet Done; Frank has naught but contempt for every human being he comes across.

On the other hand, although it is characteristically devoid of hope, the story does by the end manage to achieve something more than blind, knee-jerk cynicism. A little humour slipped in here and there, and a devastating confrontation between Frank and Richard at the end of the story, reveals that Ligotti doesn't entirely take Frank as seriously as Frank takes himself. If anything, Frank is just as pathetic a specimen as any of the people he exterminates as the book progresses. Given ultimate power he cannot think of anything better to do with it than take petty revenge against the world for simply existing. Ultimately, even his bizarre work is futile; by the end of the novel, he has realised that him, his enemies, and the entire world are all part of the same vile system, all manifestations of the same vampiric force - life itself, depicted (as it frequently is in Ligotti) as a vile and unseemly scrabble for survival for the sake of survival - or, failing that, to drag everyone else down with you when you fall. Frank is not striking against an exterior darkness but succumbing to an interior darkness, and in killing his colleagues is finally proving himself as swinish as any of them. Ultimately Frank is left cursing himself for being a puppet of the very principles he set out to overthrow, and it is with this condemnation of Frank and his worldview that the novel ends. Frank's world is cruel, arbitrary, and meaningless. And by being cruel and arbitrary in turn, Frank has ensured that it will not change.

The Virgin Books edition of My Work Is Not Yet Done comes with two short stories with a similar corporate setting appended in order to make up the page count, which are also pretty good. I Have A Special Plan For This World includes a corporate relocation to a murder-ridden, smog-choked city, and the adoption of a uniquely pervasive management style. The Nightmare Network is a cyberpunk-flavoured cautionary tale about the dangers of leasing one's dreams to higher powers. They're great, but the real draw here is My Work Is Not Yet Done itself, easily one of Ligotti's greatest accomplishments. I would highly recommend this book over Teatro Grottesco, which can get mildly wearing with slightly too many restatements of the same principles.
Themes: Books, Horror
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