Amphibian by Christina Neuwirth

12th Sep 2018

Amphibian by Christina Neuwirth
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ll know the frustrations: the politics, the demands of unswerving corporate loyalty, the bad coffee, the way the fourth floor is slowly filling up with water.

Well, if you’re Rose, working for the Sales division of MoneyTownGashGrowth, anyway...

The debut novella by Write Like A Grrrl graduate Christina Neuwirth, Amphibian blends the fantastical with the often soul-crushing banalities of an office job to great effect.

It’s funny and surreal, yes, but the premise – as a punishment for low sales revenue, the fourth floor of a company selling Bonds and Promises is slowly flooded while its workers are expected to carry on as normal, getting progressively soggier – is deftly-handled enough never to feel completely out of the realms of possibility.

For the most part, the blasé and often-crass attitude displayed by the management at Moneybanktowncorp make it easy to suspend your disbelief (watch out for a particularly enjoyable attempt by CEO Evan Humperdink to bond with his staff via a large shark-head mask).

The style of Neuwirth’s writing is light and often humorous, full of sweet details that make Rose and her fellow reluctant swimmers likeable and easy to identify with.

Yet Amphibian, for all its short length, packs a punch in its condemnation of the gradual erosion of workplace rights and the absurdity of faceless bureaucratic megaliths who demand more and more whilst providing ever less.

Where Neuwirth’s prose really shines is in its elegantly sketched tableaus of everyday life – accidentally getting wine-drunk with friends at lunch, the rewriting of emails to your boss to take out all the “what the actual fuck”s and replace them with “perhaps” and “perchance”.

Alongside the management who seem determined to miss the point and the undercurrent of fear as the water levels rise, there are flashes of human connection and joy.Although Amphibian is a story about feeling like a powerless cog in a very large machine, the frustration is juxtaposed with beauty amongst the drudgery.

Alongside the management who seem determined to miss the point and the undercurrent of fear as the water levels rise, there are flashes of human connection and joy.

Water is a potent metaphor, and plenty of our aphorisms for being overwhelmed mirror this: how often do we speak of drowning in paperwork, only just keeping our head above water?

The only difference is that for Rose and her colleagues, the water is literal, not figurative. Of course, water also keeps us alive, and once we learn to move with it instead of against it, it can offer us freedom, too. It can also dilute, rendering what was once potent less so.

The ending of Amphibian is kept ambiguous enough that we are unsure which of these is truly applicable to Rose, avoiding the risk of turning the story into a simple escapist fantasy.

Overall, Amphibian is an exciting debut from an up-and-coming writer who shows huge promise. While the constraints of the novella format occasionally left me wanting more, Neuwirth’s sharp writing style and wry observations make for an enjoyable read with a political undercurrent.

Amphibian is out now from Speculative Books