Literary Hub

Heike Geissler’s Grim Account of the Amazon Workplace

Midway through Seasonal Associate, Heike Geissler describes a day off from the Amazon warehouse. It is spent at the Leipzig Christmas market, drinking mulled wine, and then at the fine art museum, strolling through the galleries, looking at paintings, and taking her first deep breath since getting hired for the holiday rush.

I’m thinking of this rare, tranquil moment in her book as Geissler and I visit the Guggenheim Museum on a brisk March day. I find her waiting out front, wearing a wool hat low over her face, angular and framed by blunt brown bangs. We shed our coats to bask in the warmth of Hilma af Klint’s lush, floral paintings, to take a photo together in the reflective surface of a Robert Mapplethorpe assemblage. In Seasonal Associate, art and literature serve as scarce reprieves from the dull work of the warehouse—unpacking, scanning, counting, imputing—a way to restore the creative potential “buried behind your fatigue.” Geissler knows this struggle first hand.

“When I was working at Amazon, there was no time for reading. I was too exhausted,” she told me over an impromptu lunch at The New Amity Restaurant. We split the coleslaw and pickles that came with my BLT and drank many cups of coffee.

First published by Volte/Spector Books in Germany in 2014, Seasonal Associate was translated by Semiotext(e) last November, just as Amazon announced an end to their search for a second headquarters. It would be split between New York and suburban D.C., a deal that promised 50,000 well-paid tech jobs, but asked for over $2 billion in subsidies. Geissler’s book was widely reviewed and discussed in the context of staunch protests against bringing Amazon to Queens, eventually causing the e-commerce giant to pull out of the deal in February.

“There are plenty of nonfiction books written by journalists who embed themselves in bad industrial situations for a limited time, but no one has given a subjective, and literary account of 21st-century flex-time industrial work,” wrote Chris Kraus, writer and co-editor of Semiotext(e), over email.

Geissler, the daughter of a postmistress and a steel worker, grew up in East Germany and now lives in Leipzig, where, in 2010, she worked as a seasonal associate. Eight years earlier, at the age of 25, she won the prestigious Alfred Doblin prize for her debut novel, Rosa, which was met with wide critical acclaim. Less so her metafictional second book, on the difficulty of writing a second book. She then published a children’s book with an illustrator friend, relishing the freedom to experiment and collaborate. But she didn’t interview at Amazon looking for a good story.

“I needed money,” she told the audience at her New York Goethe Institute event. The mother of a young son (she now has two), writing and translating were not paying the bills.

Geissler did, however, take notes on her daily experiences in the warehouse, later assembling them into a manuscript. It was rejected by five German publishers before she decided to pull it. Instead, she re-edited and recorded herself reading several chapters out loud and put the audio files on her website. She wanted to speak to the listener directly, so she supplemented the first-person narration with a second person address.

The first personal narrator serves as a guide to your experience at the warehouse, the version of Geissler who has already experienced everything you are about to.

This means that reading Seasonal Associate feels disconcertingly immersive. You, the reader, are the one experiencing the monotony of training day, the draft that comes in from the loading dock, the flu that inevitably develops, the relief of the sick day, and then the dread of returning to work. Meanwhile the first personal narrator serves as a guide to your experience at the warehouse, the version of Geissler who has already experienced everything you are about to: the casual misogyny of the managers, the hands cut up and then wrapped, the half-hearted attempts to spend time with family after a long shift.

Writing in German, Geissler uses the formal you, Sie, to address the reader. But at the warehouse, everyone is referred to by the overly familiar du, a “creepy German imitation” of the informality of the American workplace, as she put it.

“We don’t have this divide in English,” explains Katy Derbyshire, who translated Seasonal Associate for Semiotext(e). “She’s actually granting her readers a politeness that Amazon doesn’t.”

Having both the “you” and the “I” is important to Geissler—the former creates the condensed, dramatized narrative of her time at the warehouse, the latter offers control over her message. She supplements the descriptions of harried, mechanical work with references to Friedrich Engels, artist Tracey Ermin, and poet Monica de la Torre, who writes, “My economy is broken, mispronounced.” With such minute attention to labor, there is little room for the personal. At one point, the narrator grants the reader a partner and children, only to revoke them later. “I’m not going to share them,” she decides. “You’re me, but you don’t have my entire life.” This narrator is Geissler, but it is also not. It is only the parts of herself she chooses to give.

Kraus describes Geissler’s presence in the book as “tentative and forceful at the same time.” Her “slightly fictional I,” as Geissler put it, allows her to write a “manifesto” on how we are willing to work in return for a little money and a fleeting sense of security. At the warehouse she is spoken to like a child and treated like a “tool gifted with a voice no one wants to hear.” Everything that makes her an individual is an annoyance to her employer, who will not hesitate to automate her work as soon as it becomes cost-effective.

“There’s this whole narrative of your working life, the narrative of suffering,” Geissler said. “I’m always curious about how people live, what they have to do for money and we can change or improve that. The struggle must be to strive for better working conditions, for the best working conditions.”

And yet Geissler doesn’t consider Seasonal Associate a radical book. It doesn’t call for a boycott of Amazon, though personally she avoids shopping whenever possible. “I’ve had worse jobs,” she points out, at the Goethe Institute. But Amazon came at a crucial juncture in her career: “I thought, what if this lasts forever? What if this is my life? This was my parents’ life.”

Amazon has embedded itself in consumer culture on both sides of the Atlantic. I think of the products that pass through Seasonal Associate: punching bags that come in multipart packaging, hair dryers, novelty mugs, and of course, books, thousands of books stacked up, health books, vampire books, and, in ironic twist of events, books of a writer Geissler once knew, a man who supports his family with his books, while she supports hers by boxing them.

CEO Jeff Bezos started Amazon by selling books, and now it is hard to imagine selling books without Amazon. It has changed the publishing industry indelibly: slashing prices (you can buy Seasonal Associate there at 14 percent off the list price), dominating the e-book market, and even blocking pre-orders or “disappearing” the books of publishers that dare to take a stand. In the past few years, they’ve even taken the on the brick and mortar market, opening bookstores in New York, Seattle, and 16 other locales.

“There’s a large level of precarious work that creates the conditions by which you are buying a book for $9.99,” says Alex Shepard, writer at The New Republic, who has written about Amazon for the magazine. The promise of well-paid, white collar jobs in urban centers also depends on “ruthlessly cutting costs at every level. Not just in their supply chain, but in the supply chains of the companies that sell on their platform as well.” Until last month, Amazon demanded third-party sellers offer their lowest price to Amazon alone.

At her Goethe Institute event, the audience asked Geissler questions about not just Amazon, but also the possibilities of socialism, the rise of the far right, and the decline of labor rights, even in Germany, which has a strong tradition of unions and workers’ councils. German writer Kevin Vennemann, who wrote the afterword to Seasonal Associate, tells me that German readers responded to Seasonal Associate as a critique of a particularly American brand of capitalism now affecting work culture in Germany too, leading to strikes and ongoing issues with workers’ councils. In this context, Geissler has been read as a strong, new voice amid rapidly changing political and economic norms.

Geissler writes that she wishes she had done more to disturb the peace while still an employee, that she had resisted the urge to play by the rules, ingrained in her since childhood.

“She reemerged with this book as a writer who takes a firm political stand and has theoretical tools for analyzing late capitalist working conditions. It’s rare for that kind of book to be embraced on a larger scale within German literature,” says Venneman.

As of yet, Geissler doesn’t seem fully comfortable with this platform. She’s not convinced by political labels or eager to choose one for herself: “I’m searching for what works and is good for me and my family and for the world,” she told the audience.

Since her stint at Amazon in 2010, the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic has changed dramatically. The far-right Alternative for Germany won significant representation in the Bundestag in 2017 and has become the third-largest party in the country.

“Maybe I want to be more political and more radical, but what I really want to do is regain life,” Geissler told me at the end of our lunch. We had been talking for more than two hours amid our dirty plates and coffee cups. In a day or so, she would be back in Leipzig, where she now teaches at the university.

She returned to the Amazon warehouse only once after her time as a seasonal associate was up, to visit her former co-workers, some of whom were on strike outside. Others wore We Love Amazon t-shirts, stating where their loyalties lay as they scanned into the facility, a building the size of 11 football fields. In Seasonal Associate, Geissler writes that she wishes she had done more to disturb the peace while still an employee, that she had resisted the urge to play by the rules, ingrained in her since childhood. Damaged the products. Stuck an insult inside a package. Slowed down the supply-chain. Instead, she writes, she and her co-workers took out their frustrations on each each other.

“As long as we have this narrative that your basic meaning in life is to find a job and pay for things, as long as this narrative is retold, Amazon is stronger than us,” she said. “They are part of a bigger narrative that tells us if we do not work and are not rich, there is not place for us in this world. That’s not okay.”

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