My Work Is Not Yet Done (2002) – The Revenger’s Futility

My Work is Not Yet Done is a novella published alongside two other stories.  It is, to this date, the longest work of fiction produced by Thomas Ligotti.  It is also a deeply vexing work.  While the book is occasionally brilliant and incredibly twisted, it is also a deeply taciturn book that is forever seeking to wrong-foot its readers with a series of shifts in tone, style and even genre.  The book’s ultimate target is work (that most inhuman and universal form of slavery) but I would argue that the book’s shifts in tone and sympathies also suggest a desire to deny its audience the vicarious catharsis that generally comes with a good story of revenge.  It is this aspect of the story I want to discuss here.

Cover of the 2009 edition

Cover of the 2009 edition

About a month ago, having seen Hamlet performed live for the first time, I wrote a post wondering why it was that modern audiences were so averse to tragedy.  As though sensing not only my perplexity but also my love of the literary genre, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programme for the 19th of June turned out to be devoted to Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedies.  The programme began by mentioning Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and discussed some of the genre’s conventions :

  • An act of injustice
  • A political system that does not allow reparations for said injustice.
  • A Revenging Hero.
  • Ghosts.
  • Madness.
  • Verbose rhetorical justifications.
  • Acts of retribution as ghoulish and grotesque as they are intricate.

The programme explains that the Revenge Tragedy emerged at a time when Human society was shifting from a medieval society based upon force to a modern society based upon the rule of law.  A society in which you could not exact bloody revenge for all the injustices you suffered but which, instead, encouraged you to hire a lawyer to fight your battles for you.  As such, the Revenge Tragedy marks a desire for simpler times that had slipped away.  Desire for ancient rights accorded to the original audience’s forefathers but denied to the audience.  Desire for blood.  Desire to cause suffering.  Desire to, in the words of Genghis Kahn (via Conan) to see one’s enemies driven before one and to hear the lamentations of their women.  Plays such as The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil and The Changeling blossomed on the London stage, granting an entire generation of theatregoers a collective cathartic experience.  A chance to vicariously indulge in rights so recently stripped from them by the society they inhabited.  However, the play that has come to symbolise the Revenge Tragedy is also the play that most efficiently attacks the underpinnings of the genre.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a Revenge Tragedy but rather than merely serving as a conduit for catharsis, the play questions the morality and the sanity of engaging in such absurd and primitive courses of action.  Yes, Hamlet issues forth on the need to avenge his (perhaps overly) sainted father but he also muses upon the futility of it all and the horror of causing someone’s death (“alas poor Yorick…”).

It is my contention that Thomas Ligotti’s My Work Is Not Yet Done is a Revenge Tragedy in the same mould as Hamlet.  A Revenge Tragedy that delights in the fantastical, the gory and the rhetorical, but which also asks profound question of the morality of its protagonist and its readers, should said readers sympathise with the book’s Revenging Hero Frank Dominio.
Frank Dominio is trapped.  He is trapped between a world he hates and a world he is too afraid to leave.  His conflicted nature is apparent even in the book’s opening paragraph :

“I had always been afraid.  However, as self-serving as this may sound, I never believed this to be a cause for shame or regret, even though an intolerable suffering may ensue from such a trait.  It seemed to me that the finest people, as people go, cannot help but betray a fair portion of fear and insecurity.  On the other hand, someone must have a considerable dose of the swine in their make-up to get through a single day unafflicted by trepidations of one sort or another , not to mention those who go out of their way to court dangerous encounters, fearlessly calling attention to themselves, figuratively waving their arms and declaring to everyone within range ‘Hey, Look at me.” [page 5]

This opening passage goes some way to explaining Dominio without even describing him or introducing his name.  He is a character who prides himself on his honesty, even to himself.  He is a coward and he is not ashamed of it.  In fact, he suffers for his cowardice.  But for all of his honesty, he is not above flattering himself by believing that even the best of people are cowards.  He might even be one of those best people.  After all, he’s not that different to the people who call attention to themselves by taking chances.  But he isn’t one of that lot.  Oh no.  They’re goons; Jumping up and down and waving their arms like the idiots Dominio believes them to be.  He even has a name for them : Swine.  Frank’s an honest guy.  A straight shooter.  He’s no swine.

Working in a large and faceless corporation, Frank feels his standing starting to slip among his colleagues.  Six department heads and an over-boss that Frank refers to, in clicheed fashion, as the Seven Dwarves.  Of course, there are eight people at their regular meeting but Frank’s not one of them.  Not really.  In order to retain the respect of his colleagues, Frank makes a presentation.  His big idea.  But rather than replenish the respect of his peers and his boss, Frank’s big idea is almost laughed out of the meeting.  Instantly, Frank tries to redefine himself from Frank the unappreciated business visionary, to undemanding Frank, the placeman, the unambitious, the person who has a real life outside of work :

“I wanted to stay where I was, I wanted to keep my working life securely in the status quo, and I wanted to be left alone.  This has been the motive for all my actions in my job.  This was why employees of a similar disposition transferred to my department whenever there was an opening.  We were a troupe of contented parasites, self-made failures, and complacent losers.  What lives we have were carried on entirely outside the psychic perimeter of the company”. [page 17]

Of course, this is yet more of Frank’s self-deception.  He has no life outside of work.  His only friends are an old work colleague and the woman who owns his apartment complex.  When he realises that nobody appreciates his Big Idea he begins to tear himself apart :

‘You’re making too much of this,’ said one of those secondary selves that are implanted inside every one of us and that comes to attention on these occasions, spitting forth idiotic idiotic cliches like a mad school-master from a worn-out textbook of conventional wisdom.  ‘In the grand scheme of things,’ the voice continued before I grabbed it with both hands and wrung its neck, spitting out my words of contempt through gritted teeth –
A : There is no grand scheme of things.
B : If there was a grand scheme of things, the fact – the fact- that we are not equipped to perceive it, either by natural or supernatural means, is a nightmarish obscenity.
C : The very notion of a grand scheme of things is a nightmarish obscenity. [page 14]

Frank’s boss conspires along with the other Seven Dwarves to steal Frank’s idea.  They set him up so that he looks like a thief and a pervert.  It all goes on his record.  He’s quickly moved side-ways as the company is ‘re-structured’ and before long he finds himself stuck under someone much younger than him who is only too happy to push him out the door given how terrible his record is.  This is enough to tip the conflicted and hostile Frank over into madness.  His nights are plagued with strange dreams.  He then spends what money he has purchasing a load of guns and a hunting knife.  He must exact vengeance.

Suddenly, Ligotti pulls the rug from beneath his readers’ feet.  What promises to be a story of workplace anger run amok suddenly turns much more macabre.  Before he can return to the office, Frank is grabbed by a supernatural presence who grants him incredible powers of perception, movement and action so that he can exact his revenge properly.  Frank immediately sets about devising obscene and gruesome acts of revenge and meting them out upon his former colleagues.   These colleagues, once mocked for their seriousness and grotesquely demonised for having the temerity to drink and eat during lunchtime meetings, are now inflated into uncanny monsters.  Suddenly the cliches and the awkward metaphors drop from Frank’s speech and he attains a level of surprising rhetorical fluency :

The only consternation that remained had nothing to do with Richard’s foul family, with their degeneracies, and devices, their sleazy comic-strip machinations, their hideous facades which his faces that could not be countenanced.  No, that was not the problem.  Theonly shock left to me was that of my own lingering innocence and naivete, the fondness I had for keeping my hot head in the cool sand.  I had not give those swine nearly enough credit… and my credit card could not have ordered nearly enough firepower to obliterate the things that transpired in their closed-door sessions, never mind the ever-hatching horrors that such meetings were designed to propagate, the monstrous things that popped up and hopped about, just waiting for those doors to open onto the world.  This sort of thing had been going on since doors were invented… and they happened everywhere and at all times since the first hominids got together to ‘take a meeting’.
Generally speaking : Expect nothing but nightmarish obscenities to be born when human heads come together in intercourse. [page 87]

Again we see Frank’s self-delusion.  The man who was planning to buy a bag full of guns and then move around his old work-place pumping round after round into his former colleagues was innocent?  Such a person kept their hot head in the cool sand?  Ligotti’s language here is almost Lovecraftian.  Frank is not simply exacting revenge, he is an instrument of divine justice, striking a blow against not only monstrous people but depraved institutions.  As a man, Frank was trapped in the world of work.  A world in which he could not seek reparation for the injustices inflicted upon him because his boos and the entire system seemed to be against him.  but Frank is no longer a man, he is reborn as a revenger and now he seeks to justify his bloody actions as once did Hamlet :

See, what a grace was seated on his brow: Hyperions curls, the front of Jove himself, An eye like Mars, to threaten or command, A station like the herald Mercury.

Just as Hamlet’s eyes perceive his father as a great man, they also perceive the marriage between his mother and uncle as obscene.  Upon confronting Gertrude he describes her actions in these terms :

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty.

Gertrude and Claudius are creatures of the most base carnality.  Little more than pigs.  Easily killed.

However, there is a down side to Frank’s killing.  The ‘Great Swine’ that granted Frank his powers also exacts a cost and as Frank uses his powers again and again he feels the light dimming, as though the night sky is superimposing itself between him and the world.  He also becomes aware that not only is his former boss animated by the same dark powers as he is, but also that both are but mere puppets.  Subjects of dark forces.  Dark forces that exist in all of us.

We see in the ending to My Work Is Not Yet Done the same doubt about the value of revenge as we see in the ending to Hamlet :

A curse on me.

I was weak and afraid… and I ended up as a deadly weapon wielded by a dark hand that not even I – that no one – will ever see.

A curse on it. [page 138]

Frank even enjoys a similar moment of clarity as that enjoyed by Hamlet upon encountering Yorick’s skull.  However, rather than realising the value that lies in human lives by virtue of the connections they make with other lives, Ligotti gives Frank an altogether darker revalation :

By killing myself I felt that I would also be killing all of you, killing every bad body on this earth.  To my mind, at that moment, every swinish one of us in this puppet show of a world would be done with when that bus made contact with me.  Every suicide is a homicide – or many homicides – thwarted.  [page 136]

By describing Frank’s murders with such care and skill, and by structuring the story as tale of fantastical revenge in the style of The Count of Monte Cristo or The Stars my Destination, Ligotti is inviting us to sympathise with Frank.  His use of a first person narrative ensures that we experience Frank’s world purely on Frank’s terms.  The only editorial voice is that of Frank.  Frank the murderer.  Frank the demon.  However, where Hamlet questions the morality of seeking revenge, Frank questions only its ultimate utility.  He is unrepentant for the deaths he caused.  The misery and pain he authored.  Because Frank does not question his morality, it is easy to fall into the trap of not questioning it as a reader and this is exactly where the book seems to want us.

Ligotti assails us with changes of pace, of tone and of moral vocabulary.  As Frank redefines himself, we are forced to accept his redefinition in order to keep the character sympathetic.  Even when these redefinitions contradict each other endlessly.  Moving from detective story to urban fantasy novel to tale of horror to serial killer book, we are kept constantly off-guard.  the book shifts and shifts again, eternally shuffling the moral cards before presenting us with a final Full House.  Given that Frank’s actions were not only unjustifiable but utterly fruitless, to what extent was his story even worth reading?  Did we stick it out till the end in case there was another grisly murder?  Was our vicarious enjoyment of the murders easier to justify than Frank’s committing them?  do we, like Frank, shift our moral footing with each new twist to the story?  Frank can justify anything to himself.  Can we?