Workdays in fiction aren’t like real workdays at all. Office novels will never adequately capture the deadening experience of exchanging your time for money, of watching your hours, like elastic bands, stretch out to the snapping point. They tend to lack the minute experiences that lend offices their particular flavor: hundreds of closed-lip smiles, hundreds of emails, hundreds of bland yogurts eaten at bland desks. Yet the workdays in Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Long Live the Post Horn!, ring false for another reason altogether: They feel unrealistic because her protagonist actually enjoys her job.
Ellinor, Hjorth’s narrator, is a publicist tasked with handling the Norwegian postal union’s fight against the Third Postal Services Directive in 2011. Proposed by the European Union, the directive sought to introduce more private-sector competition to the mailing business, specifically for letters weighing less than 50 grams. The proposal, its opponents argued, would make mailing more costly and pose threats to the salaries and pensions of postal workers.
Describing herself as “a letter with no contents,” Ellinor is a woman “unsuited to being the protagonist.” This detachment isn’t an affect or a self-protective pose. After her colleague quits unexpectedly—leaving behind his workload and a note in which he calls Ellinor a “spineless bitch”—she feels that she ought to despair, to weep. She ought to be angry. But she can’t muster the feeling. “I couldn’t even react the way I was supposed to,” she thinks: “with emotion.” A little later in the novel, watching her boyfriend pocket a mysterious envelope, she experiences curiosity. “So I’m capable of feeling something,” she muses.
Ellinor’s despondency swiftly lifts, however, when she takes over her departed colleague’s campaign against the postal directive. At one point, Ellinor becomes so moved by a postal worker’s story that she has to support herself on the wall behind her. Her involvement with the postal directive begins to wield an extreme influence over her life. She realizes that she’s “lacking a cause,” that she wants “to sit in a room with people who feared what [she] feared.” She asks her reflection, on two separate occasions, what her “purpose” is.
Ellinor throws herself ardently into the campaign on behalf of the public servant who delivers “love letters, birthday cards, postcards,” and “perhaps a bill, but we don’t count them.” She anxiously attends the Labour Party Conference, where the directive is rejected, in a victory for the postal union. “One small step for Labour’s grassroots,” Ellinor thinks, “but a life-changing one for me.” Throwing off her earlier numbness, Ellinor has crafted her own directive: to live “in good spirits.”