The transition from university to the workplace is never an easy one. The heightened expectations of university life often fall flat when those expectations are nowhere near realised in the often harsh environment of the workplace. Many graduates struggle to create a space worth their while, and worth the hard work and money expended on their degree. Many in fact become disappointed and disillusioned, some even angry. Potential careers are often shifted, stuck on a tangent, or even completely dismantled.
One of the hardest transitions is in the realm of the creative arts. One of the harshest of reality lessons that I learnt was that on the Friday I was an art student, and on the following Monday I was an ex-art student standing in a long line of other ex-art students signing on at the Jobcentre.
Art School and the outside world are often not very companionable, and in many cases openly hostile towards each other. An art degree is treated with contempt by many in the workplace as being impractical, delusional, even juvenile, but Art Schools can treat the workplace with an equal contempt, as one where inferiority, low-expectations, and blind acceptance reigns supreme. Both viewpoints have merit in their own way, because both are looking at reality from different perspectives, their own, but they are also tragically myopic in their misunderstanding of each other.
Veneer by the writer P. H. Davies is a book about the conflict between differing perspectives on reality. Between the worlds of student and post-student life, between university and work experience. It is also about the conflict between focused optimism and passive acceptance, between the worlds of hope and expectation, and fear and disillusionment.
Veneer follows the post-student journey of Kris, a young man who studied art history, and naturally wants to live, work, and breath art for the rest of his life. Too much to ask? Clearly yes, as his job in a menswear department as a sales assistant proves to be an increasingly difficult one for him to both recognise and rationalise.
Retail, with the possible exception of an art gallery, or auction house, was definitely not on Kris list of career possibilities when he was at university, but here he is. He has no enthusiasm for the ‘exciting possibilities’ thrown up by his position in menswear sales. In fact, he often mentally disengages from his day, increasingly so as university begins to fade, and his retail future begins to crowd in on him.
Veneer contains only a handful of characters, most of whom are connected to Kris involuntary workplace. They are memorable, instantly recognisable, and although an anathema to Kris yearned for life, they are still somewhat sympathetic. They have their perspective of reality and Kris has his, and you feel for both sides of that gulf, knowing in your heart that both are as unreal as the other. Realities that have been personalised through individual perspective mean nothing to anyone else, why should they?
Veneer is many ways semi-autobiographical, P H Davies admitting that there is a hefty element of the book that draws on a difficult segment of his life in his early twenties, in retail. It was also his first published book, and is therefore seen by him as one that helped to hone his skill as a writer, but one that doesn’t necessarily define him as a writer.
However, to me it is a beautifully written book, and although the writer himself has pondered publicly as to the merit of the intensity and minuteness of descriptions, as well as the unrelenting bleakness of the narrative, I still think it is a beautiful piece of work. A scene when Kris is helping to explain some details of the works of the artist Gustav Klimt to a fellow retail colleague for example, is touching, revealing, poignant, sad, and intense, all aspects that are jumbled up within one moment in time, but so well-orchestrated, that it was a joy to read. It is a scene that stays hauntingly with you long afterward, and the book is full of so many of these minute pockets of intensity.
Anyone who has made the transition from university to workplace, that has had to struggle in transferring from one reality to another, will understand and empathise with the tragic hero of Veneer. You have to wonder sometimes why any of us put ourselves through further education only to be told that the job we trained for doesn’t actually exist, were we all in a dream?
From time to time I have wondered whether I should perhaps have not gone to university. Sometimes I wondered whether if I had chosen something more practical, something that would have fitted in with others reality, I would perhaps have struggled less. But other times I can’t imagine having done anything else, it seems that it was somehow meant to have been. Life is all about choices after all, and I made mine when I decided to apply to art school, whatever has come from that, came from that choice, and I have had to deal with the consequences.
Perhaps we should be asked when we are a young teenager, not what we want to be when we are an adult, but what is practically achievable. But to be honest, who wants to be given that narrow a definition when starting a life? Life is all about possibilities, hopes, dreams, it is what we live for, and what gives us so much of our momentum for the life journey. That Veneer centres on the slow collapse of those possibilities, hopes, and dreams for one individual, doesn’t negate them for all. We live with the positive dream of the child always before us, give in to adult disappointment and we are finished.
Veneer and other works by the writer P H Davies can be found at his Amazon page. He also has a comprehensive website, which is regularly updated with his writing on various subjects and can be found here.