Office Hours

by Ling Ma

First, an unrelated note. Someone asked at our opera night about the difference between operas and musicals. I read up a little on this and the consensus seems to be that in opera, the voices are the main attraction – you go to an opera expecting to be wowed by big, powerful, wide-ranging voices trained in vibrato etc., whereas you might go to a musical for the acting, the dancing, or the story as much as for the singing.

I thought about Leonard Bernstein in relation to this because he composed both Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957) – both in English, close to the same length, both with full symphonic scores, but Candide is almost always performed as an operetta and West Side Story as a musical. You can listen to these two tenor-soprano love duets side by side and hear the difference: ‘Oh happy we‘ (Candide) has those opera-sounding voices while ‘Tonight‘ (West Side Story) has musical-sounding voices. Here’s a more operatic version of ‘Tonight‘ that still, I think, doesn’t sound as operatic as any of the songs in Candide.

Anyway… maybe this wasn’t so unrelated after all, since we talk all the time in our group about the fuzzy boundaries between genres.

What genre does ‘Office Hours’ belong to? I’m not sure, but I would say not sci-fi. In fact, I think that’s why I was so distressed by this story: its world is extremely close to the real world – my real world! – but for the protagonist, this world is so ‘fucking impossible’ she just checks out.

‘Office Hours’ makes my/our real world look like a dystopia. The gross displays of decadence at department events, contrasted with Marie’s poverty and hunger. The way Marie has to package her life’s work as an inane commercial to serve as background noise for the donor event. The way everything that should make our lives meaningful gets relentlessly commodified and turned into a zero-sum game: community engagement –> number of committee assignments; curiosity and inquiry –> number of publications; teaching and learning –> enrollments and evaluations; time with family –> a ‘lost year.’

But I was also delighted by this story. I really liked the way it made me think of vampires as a counter-culture, a group that resists all this. Vampires are anachronistic, never changing. They’re not afraid to spend long stretches of time in utter stillness and privacy. They’re not interested in progress or advancement (the exception here being Count Dracula, who does want to expand his domain – but by invading England, the great colonizer). Vampires aren’t reflected in mirrors, which means they only ever show their authentic selves, never a pretend or fake version. Marie’s life is full of reflected and projected and performed versions of people.

Also, vampires move between worlds, but they respect the boundaries between those worlds. They venture into the human world only at specific predetermined times, and they don’t enter anyone’s private space without permission. There’s a hilarious parallel here to the rituals around office hours – the strict start and end times, the greeting and leave-taking scripts (“Okay?” “Okay”). Professors’ offices can be the entry point for ‘infecting’ a new generation of scholars, as one of you put it, and they can also serve as an interstice between the public and the private, a place where boundaries are blurred and interactions become ‘borderline.’ Marie’s cigarettes cast a literal haze over this space, and the Professor’s over-sharing and her naps are ways to flirt with transgression without quite crossing the line.

So even though this story messed me up, I also found it comically rewarding and weirdly hopeful: it lays out another pathway for resistance. Many thanks to you for recommending it and spending time talking about it with me.

On the side, I started compiling stories and films about doubled, halved and cloned selves. So far I have: ‘Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles’ (Theodore McCombs); The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin); ‘Better Versions of You’ (Ted Chiang); Us and Get Out (Jordan Peele films), ‘Unknown Number’ by Blue Neustifter… what else?

Please add your thoughts. What else did ‘Office Hours’ make you think about?

2 thoughts on “Office Hours

  1. Nico Mestre

    Thank you for letting me borrow “Ghost World,” the 1997 comic book adapted into the 2001 film. This weekend, I got the chance to read the book and watch the movie. Though neither are sci-fi, I enjoyed their witty, satirical, and at times very dark teenage humor. Marie, the protagonist of Ling Ma’s “Office Hours,” shows her students the film in her course “Disappearing Women,” and they discuss Enid’s fantasy of escaping town in search of authenticity. While reading and watching, I noticed various narrative devices and plot points from “Ghost World” that might’ve influenced Ma while writing “Office Hours.” Here are some of my noteworthy observations:

    –The book and film begin with Enid and Rebecca finishing high school. The central tension throughout the “Ghost World” is whether Enid will go to college, which reminded me a lot of Marie’s “lost year,” hovering between undergrad and the “real world.” Rebecca is ready to start her adult life; she finds a job and goes apartment hunting, dragging Enid along. As noted by Sarah, one of Marie’s students, “most of us are like Rebecca: We’re critical of the real world, but we still have to live in it.” Enid, on the other hand, resembles Marie and perhaps the Professor in her tendency to change her appearance, “splitting” herself into pieces, as the Professor confesses to Marie–“The sanest way forward [as a professor]–you have to learn how to split yourself up, like an earthworm.” Like Marie, Enid wants to attend college; however, in the comics Enid gets rejected from “Strathmore” (definitely a wink at Swathmore College) and in the movie she gets rejected from the American Academy of Art. Still, both Enid and Marie pursue academic lives that put their personal/interior lives at risk, forcing them to “split” themselves up into pieces–Enid with her wardrobe/hair and Marie with her doppelgänger in the “chamber.”

    –The movie emphasizes Enid’s relationship with Seymour, a grown up anti-social record collector. Their relationship begins as a prank (she finds his number in a newspaper ad and pretends to be the woman he saw at a party–another example of stolen identity), but escalates to romance. For most of the movie, though, Enid and Seymour walk the fine line between friends and lovers–what’s unsaid in most scenes is that she is much, much younger than him. Until the sexual tension between Enid and Seymour becomes overt, the relationship parallels Marie and the Professor’s will they/won’t they ambiguity. Similarly to how Marie looks up to the Professor, at one point flat out telling him “I want your job,” Enid appreciates Seymour’s record collection and admires his musical expertise. However, unlike Enid, Marie and the Professor’s relationship never becomes overtly sexual. Marie’s journeys “chamber” keep her close with the Professor (she finds him there walking his dog), whereas Enid actively escapes Seymour (and the rest of town) on the bus at the end of the movie.

    –The form of both the movie and comic book are really similar to “Office Hours.” The scenes often bleed into each other. Enid and Rebecca will be walking on the street or in a diner and a revolving cast of characters will appear, then in the next frame, they will be in another familiar setting with familiar characters. The porousness of time is a stylistic devise Ma also utilizes in “Office Hours.” In the first scene Marie is a student and in the next she’s a professor. In one scene Marie is with the Professor and in the next she’s at his funeral. This narrative device lends both “Ghost World” and “Office Hours” an eerie, uncomfortable atmosphere, as though the characters are trapped in their environment, whether it’s their hometown or the University. We sense that there’s a need to escape, but by the end of both stories we doubt that Marie or Enid ever will find their “fantasy spaces.” As Abby, one of Marie’s students, says about the ending of “Ghost World,” “that’s the fantasy, right? That there is an escape, there is a way out of…”

    1. Marjorie Pak

      I’m glad you read and watched Ghost World! I also watched the movie over the weekend and it was as painful and funny and sad as I remembered it. I physically cringed through many of the scenes (green-haired Enid screaming,‘It’s not like I’m some MODERN punk!’ And Seymour blowing out the birthday candle, omg). But the movie also gives both Enid and Seymour moments of real dignity and beauty. And those last two scenes (Norman leaving, then Enid leaving), with the piano music in the background… even though I’d seen it before, it was shocking and deeply moving.
      Speaking of Norman… Enid ‘escapes Seymour,’ as you put it, but what about Norman? What’s he doing in Ghost World?
      I like your comments about how these two stories—and their different mediums—show us the ‘porousness of time.’ Enid seems to be always struggling against time and refusing to be pinned down by it. She yearns for her childhood (listening to the sing-along record, dragging all her old toys and crap out to the yard but then refusing to sell it), but she’s also drawn to Seymour’s middle-aged bars and parties. Her wardrobe ranges all over the place, from punk-rock teenager to ‘little old lady’ with a hat, to the Jackie Kennedy outfit at the end. The film itself looks weirdly out of time too, older than it really is: the colors are a little too saturated; it’s a little too grainy; there’s too much silence.
      Marie’s elusiveness is even more extreme than Enid’s, and I think this is a big part of why I find ‘Office Hours’ so chilling. We talked about how she’s nameless for much of the story, and how even though she’s utterly isolated, she never seems *lonely* (unlike Enid, who spends the last part of the movie desperately trying and failing to connect with people). What does Marie want? Who is she inside? When the Professor confides his unhappiness and frustration, she doesn’t reciprocate; she goes to sleep. When she speaks aloud, her voice is almost always fake – she’s either drunk (‘Hi, Nemo!’), or ‘engaging’ in party chitchat, or ‘pretending’ for her students, or presenting at the donors’ ‘cosplay.’ The blankness of her office is scary as hell – bare walls, empty bookshelves, impersonal plywood furniture. Why is she like this? Is she just extremely private, so private that she’s hidden even from us readers? What does it say about her world, that she has to hide like this?


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