Joanne McNeil’s debut novel is an idea-driven portrait of a woman cornered by capitalism who lands her dream job.
For years, Teresa has meandered from one job to the next, settling into long stretches of time, unable to move ahead in any field or career, the dreaded move from one gig to another starting to feel unbearable. When a recruiter connects her with a contract position at AllOver, it appears to check all her prerequisites for a “good” job. It’s a fintech corporation with progressive...
Read the First Chapter: WRONG WAY
Read the first chapter of Joanne McNeils’s debut novel Wrong Way.
A note from the publisher:
I first encountered - and first published - Joanne McNeil as a nonfiction writer. She was in the first wave of writers on the internet who I took seriously and got excited by as cultural critic, and her debut book, Lurking, is a mind-blowingly smart, personal story of what the Web was and has become. And even though I also knew that she was a passionate fiction fan whose fascination with the likes of Philip K. Dick and Octavia Butler dovetailed with my own (and even though we published a piece of Joanne’s fiction in last year’s Terraform anthology), I was still caught off-guard when her debut novel, Wrong Way, landed in my inbox. (I do realize that to other keen (or even not-so-keen) observers of Joanne’s career, that’s mostly me admitting to be a dense idiot, but oh well - that’s sometimes the job.)
Wrong Way plumbs familiar territory for Joanne—the intersection of technology, feminism, labor, and, well, humanity is her sweet spot. And anyone who has ever thought of her works as Ballardian won’t be shocked to see what looks something like a crushed steel bumper crashed across the cover. And yet, of course, the whole thing is a profound surprise. A novel! By Joanne McNeil! There are other writers I work with who also traverse fiction and nonfiction—Ellen Ullman is perhaps the obvious comparison, but also Héctor Tobar (with whom Joanne is launching Wrong Way in Los Angeles), Sloane Crosley, and Aleksandar Hemon come quickly to mind—but still, the very idea of Joanne writing a novel gives me a special thrill. recalls for me the sense of endless possibility of books like Katherine Neville’s The Eight and the previously mentioned Ballard and Butler, and also the very now-feeling fiction of our own Robin Sloan, Ray Nayler, and Tim Maughan (who is Wrong Way’s most committed advocate), or the likes of William Gibson and Cory Doctorow and the speculative nonfiction (?) of James Bridle and Jenny Odell.
I am speaking broadly and grandly about the book mostly because I’m told my go-to lines for describing the novel itself are too spoiler-y, but let me at least point you to Joanne’s surreal thread about hailing driverless Waymo taxis in Chandler, Arizona. I think Esquire has already spoiled that much with this early coverage of the book. By its nature, it takes a novel to get more ridiculous and weirdly heartbreaking than driverless cars coming complete with chauffeurs, and we all know it takes a truly extravagant imagination to outdo our current reality. But I am glad to report that Joanne has done it. Please keep on reading to go the Wrong Way with Joanne McNeil (which is to say, here is the first chapter)…
From Sean McDonald, Publisher, MCD
Some of them were good jobs. All of them were odd. Each was better than nothing, but it’s true, some were not bad and a few jobs were even good. A steady paycheck and a sense of purpose made all the difference.
There were those evenings and weekends behind the jewelry counter at Cedars department store. It was good. She could walk there. That’s what everyone wants, right? To walk to work. She didn’t know it then. The walk was unscenic alongside traffic that choked at splintering in- tersections through a district of thin streets laid down sometime late in the seventeenth century. First a cow hoofed it, disrupted a field and kicked up dandelions and weeds. Then a path was set, and, in turn, it became a dirt cartway before it was paved with granite sett. Bluestone sidewalks came later, and even later, a blacktop layer. The old stones underneath, buried for decades, now reveal themselves to the modern world at the street corners where the asphalt is cracked.
Downtown had the density of a city neighborhood and none of the sprawl of the suburb it was, but it was no city. Each shop had the same olive lighting, the same eggs-and-sawdust smell and old circulars from The Pa- triot Ledger, stepped on and crusted over where the threshold ramps met the sidewalk. There was a family- owned hardware store, a package store, and a store that sold crystal figures and stationery—Christian stuff, Bible verses carved in pewter, and wind chimes and dream catchers, possibly, but it was hard to tell from the window display. Once she went inside the army navy store be- cause a magazine said that’s where you could get nice peacoats for cheap. They had no peacoats. Or maybe they did, she didn’t want to ask or stick around long. There were three people inside hanging around the cash regis- ter and they all looked like old vets.
She would cross at the Cumberland Farms next to Stoughton’s lone Chinese restaurant. Cedars glowed like a fallen star that crashed into the parking lot, a beacon of warm light in the evening fog beaming through the frosted-glass brick that wrapped around the exterior. Grid patterns and shapes were painted on the walls in primary colors like trigonometry homework completed with a four-color Bic. The orderly displays inside sum- moned a clientele just as structured. It was a catalog showroom. Customers knew what they wanted before they got there. Sometimes they went to the store to see an object in person that they had circled in the glossy wish book that arrived at their front doors with a thud like the Yellow Pages. There would be a specific model of vacuum cleaner or a top-of-the-line car phone in a zip-up bag that they were curious about. They’d find the right department, decide to make a purchase or not, and then return to their cars somewhere in the pothole-speckled lot. Nurses bought Keds sneakers, sometimes three pairs of the same style at a time. Guys from the auto body shop across the road might stop in for replacement pliers. No one experienced the store from one end to the other ex- cept for the children who scurried off when their moms asked one of the sales associates about a digital alarm clock warranty or their dads checked the prices of the coffee makers in stock. But even those kids tended to flock to the same place—the lighting department. They’d find the best spot: looking up from underneath the dis- play of chandeliers with stained glass torch lamps in staggered heights and ceramic table lamps crowding the shelves on either side.
There was an office in the center of the building, a place the staff called the “heart” of the store. In these secret rooms, the floors were solid white tile and dusty. The walls were plain. She’d tap in at the punch clock and stuff a paper bag with her name on it with the other pa- per bags in the mini fridge in the kitchen where the lights constantly flickered off and on.
Her heels would tap gently on the tiles as she fol- lowed the central artery toward her station. Thin red dotted lines and thick blue squares accenting the check- erboard floors like trail markers. The fluorescent lights blanched the counter vitrines from a distance. She felt like an actor in a stage play; a leading role in a team effort and public-facing too. Curtain up was when she typed in her code for the cash register: 7485. Her department was in between hardware and cosmetics. At the start of her shift, she could smell the metallic of brand-new wrenches and synthetic tuberose house perfume on either side; it felt right for the glittering baubles pinned to groves on beige velvet slabs, beautiful small things locked in glass like tropical fish in an aquarium. She carried the vitrines key on a neon spiral lanyard around her wrist. It made her feel important.
The job was dull most of the time. Dull is not bad. If it had been an actual theater performance, she would have had to stand around and wait through rehearsals and breaks too. She felt safe behind the counter. No one could get too close to her.
The best customers were the people who bought pen- dants. That’s a neutral gift. Middle-aged women would buy silver stars on silver chains for their best friends. There were pin-size ladybug pendants that grandmothers liked to get for their grandchildren. No one ever bought the Hasbro charm necklace with dangling Monopoly pieces, but some of the kids, who wandered to the counter on their own from the VCR section or the lawn mower display, would come by and ask for it.
“Lemme!!” shouted an unaccompanied four-year-old, her eyes focused on the brassy chain with a slight tangle between the wheelbarrow charm and Scottie dog. Teresa didn’t mind it. She asked the little girl to turn around, secured the clasp, and let her hold the old-fashioned hand mirror that they kept behind the counter, so the child could admire the shiny pieces around her neck.
Bracelets were boring. It was exhausted-looking men in suits who would arrive at the store at quarter to six and ask to see the “tennis bracelets.” They would quickly de- cide on one of several identical thin chains with some ambivalence and run out once they paid. Rings were something else: statement pieces, tended for sentimental reasons. She sold about three claddagh rings a week. All the customers were buying for someone else, so they often asked for her opinion of the inventory. She didn’t like Ce- dars jewelry—or any jewelry, or anything unnecessary— but she studied it all in the pamphlets tucked under the register that explained cuts and clarity. She learned every birthstone and remembered the advice from her cowork- ers, things like how customers liked to pretend that sap- phire was the gemstone for December. Just let them.
“You’re not going to find anything nicer than that,” she’d say. That was one of her lines. She sold six engage- ment rings and only two of the six men tried to flirt with her. Each ring was about a forty-dollar commission. She thought, when the first commission on an en- gagement ring sale hit her paycheck, that she was lucky. By the sixth ring, she figured she was going to be the kind of person who would never struggle with money. It would just happen and come easily. Already she was making it.
She wore no rings, no earrings, nothing herself. The customers never seemed to notice. But when she first started, she tried on jewelry when no one was looking. She’d slide an engagement ring onto her left ring finger and then onto her right. It wasn’t in the pamphlets, which hand the ring was for; on either hand, the diamonds al- ways looked wrong on the girl’s finger. In the gemstone vitrine, there was a horizontal egg-shaped garnet ring that looked antique. She liked it enough and thought it would be a nice keepsake kind of thing to have to re- member this moment in time. It was fifty-six dollars, a lot, but her plan was to buy it after her tenth engagement ring commission and she’d still have all that money left over. The store discount was 20 percent off; maybe, she thought, she’d even get to keep the commission if she rang it up herself.
On her fifteen-minute break, she strolled through the aisles with color swatches for house paint. She day- dreamed about living on her own and painting the ceil- ing a specific shade of cloudy powder blue: Windmill Wings. She had another spiral wristlet with a key for the closet-size room behind the juniors section. There, she’d switch out VHS tapes that played on nine televisions mounted above racks of jeans and cropped T-shirts. Each tape played music videos for two hours. On one VHS player, she’d enter a new tape, and on the other, she’d set the completed tape to rewind. Sometimes the key-cutting machine in hardware would screech over the music. Else- where there were speakers constantly playing wordless music that was diaphanous and jazzy. She only noticed it when the televisions stopped and it was time to switch out the VHS tapes.
Her boss seemed so old. He was only twenty-five, but he was married, but he also didn’t act like it. There were a few times she didn’t like the way he looked at her, but even contemplating this many years later, in the pool, lap sixteen, she thought that look she didn’t like was that of a disgruntled vaunter who would have preferred to be, as he probably is today, selling snowmobiles or pontoons or something bigger, with the risks and rewards to show for it. Absent any real power, he focused on irrelevant tasks, staging his subordinate like a mannequin and reminding her to smile. This was the first thing a customer would have seen from the center left entrance: a teenage girl with her dark hair to her waist and a muted smile, dressed in her nicest clothes—plaid skirts, black tights, cardigan sets—clean ensembles made of synthetic fabrics, first- day-back-at-school attire, the clothes she could wear to church; quiet behind a glass counter, under panels of powerful incandescent daylight-mimicking lights.
She loved the thirty minutes between closing and lockup. Counting the cash, then placing it in a leather pouch with the most expensive inventory in the safe. Loved that the store trusted her to do this. When the central lights went out, the whole place felt serene; it was still brighter than anything in town, still a crashed star in the lot. She never did get that garnet ring. She was six- teen years old.
Lap sixteen at the Y is when she would remember this, flip turn, and recall, before seventeen, how the job ended. It was a good job, but those stores don’t exist now. Those jobs don’t.
Lap seventeen. She was no mannequin there, dressed in a wrinkly and oversized polo with the convenience store logo above the right breast. Hunched over and amorphous, like all the customers, but she was twenty years younger than the youngest among them. She can’t remember much of it. Still. Not a bad job. She could walk there.
A good job at eighteen. Lap eighteen. The workplace was good. She got to eat for free in the cafeteria with all the technical workers. Most of them had thick black- frame glasses and severe haircuts. It was some dot-com, some sort of creative agency. It surprised her to see cool- looking people in this suburb—Norwood; she thought people like that all lived in Boston. She was whisked to a tiny room with no windows to read a script in a cubicle in the dark; what it was, she can’t remember now, just selling people over the phone on whatever the company was sell- ing. That was not good. But it was good on her lunch breaks. Fresh pastas and salads. Really good food. They asked her for a four-digit PIN to log in to see the call registry. She already remembered 7485. On a ten-key, it was as easy to type as anything at all.
Lap nineteen and careful not to blink so her goggles don’t leak. Data entry at the Paper Mason headquarters in a crumbling neo-Romanesque tower in Brockton with an ornate arched roof and graffiti on the sides. It smelled funny in there, like the kitchen fridge needed a deep clean. Another time, they asked for a four-digit pin: 7485. Lap twenty, lap twenty-one, lap twenty-two. Something at the Milton country club. It was only for the summer. Pouring wine, sweeping up. It was fine, the money was good: minimum wage on paper, a W-2, but she cleaned up in tips. Other jobs. Lap twenty-five is when things changed. That’s when the money really made a differ- ence. She lets her mind wander until it’s two miles al- most, lap fifty-one and out. She can swim longer than her years. Up in the cold air, nothing to hear but splash- ing and echoes. Toweling off. She removes her cap and squeezes her wet chin-length hair. There were other jobs that were not so good.