If there’s one quality that defines Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses, it’s subtlety. This collection of eight short stories is a masterpiece of observation which clearly demonstrates the author’s perceptive wit.
Set in the 1950s, amidst the corridors and offices of the newly-created monolithic and meandering bureaucracy of “the Organization”– read the United Nations – an American-based concern intent on ‘inflicting improvement’ the world over, readers are introduced to an immalleable world hemmed in by regulations, memoranda and mediocrity. A place where once vibrant personalities are smothered and strangulated by red tape, and the general life-sapping realities of paper-pushing and the exacting demands of pointless tasks reign paramount.
Interpersonal relationships ossify into rigid, functional roles. Promotions are the fruits of relentless struggle or brown-nosing, rather than being based on a person’s intrinsic skills and abilities. Petty-minded secretaries wheedle their way into powerful positions where they manipulate the lives others, as in “The Story of Miss Sadie Graine”. The Organization’s original bourgeois-liberal ideals, no matter how patronising, of improving the lot of “backward” nations via the pursuit of Progress, become lost as energies are inwardly-absorbed in order to serve the growing needs of the all-pervading mechanical administration.
There are a few individuals who refuse to have the last drops of their humanity and personality wrung out by the mangle of occupational culture. But, they are “laterally promotes, “relocated to Kabul,” or, in the case of Algie Wyatt, a saturnalian character, simply retired.
“He could no get used to giving, with a straight face, a continual account of himself; nor could he regard as valid a system of judging a person’s character by the extent of his passion to detail,” writes Hazzard. “He was, in short, an exception: that very thing for which organizations make so little allowance.”
Even powerful mandarins are prone to occasional uncharacteristic introspections on the futility of it all, as Olaf Jaspersen reflects in “Official Life”: “One would think that freedom was a museum piece – some extinct creature being pickled in a jar of spirits,” he muses.
With People in Glass Houses, Hazzard – an Australian septuagenarian who has penned five works of fiction, including The Great Fire, and has won the National Book Critics’ Award, the National Book Award, and the Miles Franklin Award – has created a book laced with gentle humour. It is a deeply-funny read, but one which you’re more likely to chortle along too, than to laugh out loud at.
Her use of pseudo-UN jargon in the naming of the Organization’s divisions, committees and initiatives, such as DALTO, the Department for Aid to the Less Technically Advanced; the Contingency and Unresolved Disputes Section; the Assembly of Non-Accredited Groups; the Human Dignity Section; and the Forceful Implementation of Peace Treaties; is a good example of this.
In many ways you could describe the book as a lighthearted liberal dig at one of the bastions of liberal society. But it would be a mistake to think that “lighthearted” means the stories lack depth. On the contrary, Hazzard’s work is imbued with an extremely keen sense of perception into the nature of human relationships, of the flawed institutional characters of an apparently proactive organization, and the corruptability of so-called foreign aid.
“It was true that the grievous condition of many of the countries assisted by DALTO seemed to justify almost anything that was done to them – providing, as it were, a mandate for any change, the bad along with the good. About this development there appeared to be no half-measures: once a country had admitted its backwardness, it could hope for no quarter in the matter of improvement. It could not accept a box of pills without accepting, in principal, an atomic reactor. Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop,” she writes.
It really is a case of less is more. No great shocks, world-changing events, or Oscar-scene character scenarios take place. Instead, we are presented with trivialities, and lives worn and stretched thin on the rack of banality. Many characters pop-up in a number of the stories, where the repetitiveness and fatalistic nature of their occupations quietly drives home the Organization’s inherent nihilism, and how its complex web of bureaucracy binds all of those who work within it to a future life of spiritual decay.