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Frank was first brought to see the Knox Building in New York City by his father Earl in 1935 when he was ten. A man at the Home Office named Oat Fields had invited Earl and Frank to the office for luncheon and a baseball game at Yankee stadium. Frank had been so nervous that he nearly vomited the morning of the trip. At the Knox Building, his father paused to explain the machines in the display room. Frank was impressed by his reflection in the plate glass and the building’s staggering height. The rest of the day had been disappointing, though: watching the enormously fat Oat Fields eat sloppily disgusted Frank, and the ball game bored him. On the way home, Earl reprimanded Frank for failing to thank Oat Fields, and Frank saw his father anxiously touching his genitals on the subway. That night Frank vomited into the toilet, remembering watching Oat Fields eat.
The experience of going to see his father’s company headquarters was a disappointing one for Frank. He was initially excited by the size of the building and impressed by his father’s explanations of the machines. But seeing his father flatter the repulsive Oat Fields made Frank feel repulsion towards his father. Similarly, seeing how his father touched his genitals in an anxious tick (a symbolic origin for Michael’s nervous act at the end of Chapter 3), Earl falls in Frank’s esteem. He no longer seems powerful and manly, but poor and weak, concerned about his masculinity even in a physical manner. This visit to the Knox Building may have been a turning point, when Frank went from feeling that he disappointed his father to trying to rebel against him.
Only later did Frank piece together that his father had been under consideration to be Oat Fields’s assistant, having clung to his job as a branch assistant-manager through the many layoffs of the Depression, but had learned that day during their trip that the promotion was not happening. This disappointment had been the beginning of Earl’s decline. He had been demoted to a regular salesman and his health weakened, his wife had aged, and he was horrified by Frank’s behavior. Frank took jobs that didn’t require any education and tortured his mother by failing to write for eight months, and then sending a letter without a return address, announcing he had gotten married.
After managing to keep his job through the difficult years of the Depression, as so many other men could not do, Earl Wheeler is stunned by disappointment. He hopes that his son, who has a better education and better opportunities, will live a life he can admire, but Frank takes a malicious pleasure in hurting his father by squandering opportunities and treating his mother with disrespect.
Earl would not have understood how it happened that Frank came to work at Knox Business Machines. Frank had told a classmate he needed a job because April was “knocked up.” He expressly asked for a boring job, saying he wanted to preserve a separate identity until he figured out what he really wanted to do. Knox had been on the list of employers the classmate showed him. Frank had gotten the job without mentioning that his father had worked for Knox. He thought of his job as a hilarious joke, doing boring work he didn’t care about and putting in no effort, but it was a joke that no one else seemed to understand. Eventually he stopped explaining it to other people, only saying “he didn’t do anything, really” but had “the dullest job you could possibly imagine.”
Frank feels a perverse satisfaction in getting a job his father would have coveted, but that he himself looks down upon. He feels that this derisive attitude towards his job is proof that he is a more interesting and valuable individual than his father was. Yet the fact that Frank chose to work at the same company where his father worked shows that he is still preoccupied with Earl’s opinion and cannot escape his father’s influence. Frank takes the “joke” of working at Knox so seriously that he forgets to think about what he really does want to do, only assuming that working at Knox isn’t it.
The Monday after April’s performance, Frank enters the Knox building and makes his way up the elevator to the fifteenth floor automatically. Sometimes he feels aware that he does take some pleasure in the routines of the office. As Frank walks to his desk, Maureen Grube greets him and he thinks about sleeping with her. He asks himself, “why not?” He thinks that she has been encouraging him for months, and she probably lives somewhere with a roommate who is out all day long, which will make the logistics easy.
Although Frank takes a posture that his job is beneath him, in fact he enjoys its routines. The work environment also provides him with opportunities to boost his self-esteem when he needs it. It is likely no coincidence that Frank finally decides he wants to sleep with Maureen on a day when April is alienated from him and making him feel bad about himself.
Reaching his desk, Frank listens to his officemate Jack Ordway tell him about the weekend that has left him too hungover to work. His wife’s friends had come to town and they had drunk cocktail after cocktail. Ordway is an alcoholic who married a rich woman and used up her inheritance. Although others in the office think Jack’s life sounds glamorous, Frank has met Jack’s wife and knows that she is discontent, and blames Jack for ruining her life.
For many in the office, the idea of marrying an heiress makes Ordway’s life seem out-of-the-ordinary and interesting. Frank, however, has seen that Ordway’s life is not glamorous and he is unhappy because his wife looks down on and resents him. The Ordway marriage may also remind Frank of his worst fears about his own marriage.
Frank begins to look through the papers on his desk, sorting them into piles without reading them and marking them to be filed away and returned to him later by a secretary. After going to coffee with several coworkers, Frank looks at a letter addressed to him by a branch manager in Toledo about a badly written pamphlet full of errors. The branch manager needs a better pamphlet to distribute at an important upcoming conference. This gives Frank an idea: he goes to Maureen Grube’s desk and, showing her the pamphlet, asks her if she can help him locate files so that he can rework the pamphlet. He takes her into the archives and looks at her face: she is not very pretty, but if he ignores her imperfections he finds her very desirable. He tells her he will stop back in to see how she is doing.
Rewriting the pamphlet will turn out to be a pivotal moment for Frank’s career, but at the time all he can think about is making himself feel better by seducing Maureen Grube. He sees seducing her as an antidote to his shattered self-confidence, and his job is nothing more than a means to that end. Maureen is also nothing more than a means to an end: he wants her to reassure him of his manliness and his attractive powers. He is not truly infatuated with her, but wants to seduce her to console himself for being rejected by April.
Frank goes back to his cubicle and thinks over his plan. He will go back to Maureen once most of the office has gone to lunch, and ask her to lunch. Ordway approaches to ask him to go to lunch, and Frank says he can’t, disappointing Ordway. After waiting a bit, Frank returns and asks Maureen to lunch. She agrees and he goes to the elevator to wait for her, where he worries that his coworkers will return before they get out of the building. Outside the building, he thinks he catches a glimpse of his office friends as he ducks into a cab after Maureen, but he feels giddy with excitement and doesn’t care.
Frank is now carefree and full of excitement as he throws himself into his plan to seduce Maureen. This excitement has little to do with Maureen herself. For Frank the fun is in the conquest and the process of skillfully trying to act in secret, getting around the obstacles office life creates to seducing a secretary. Frank has found a way to temporarily escape his dependence on April’s admiration to feel good about himself.