Reviewed by Stanley Bing
Sunday, February 19, 2006
By Max Barry
Doubleday. 338 pp. $22.95
It's not difficult to make business look ridiculous. People dress funny. They act in constrained, bizarre and obnoxious ways, fueled by coffee, adrenaline and fear. The organization bends and twists human characters, and the worst sociopaths are often the most successful at the game. Idiotic rules and regulations abound. Stupidity triumphs. Goodness is seldom rewarded.
Best of all, for humorists and corporate anthropologists, is the fact that people under enormous stress are funny. Sad, too, of course, but amusing even then, as they rush about like rats on speed, trying to understand and manipulate the maze into which they have been placed.
It's a lot harder for a novelist interested in more than simply mocking the poor suffering beasts. How is one to find the humanity that lurks beneath the infrastructure, the beating heart that drives even the most tepid accountant into flights of mad passion when the balance sheet aligns? Can we imagine these people outside the cubicle farm? Is it possible to enjoy the crazy, Byzantine stuff that drives a large organization without rendering it into some kind of alien planet where no human life can be found?
These are the questions posed by Company , an extremely funny, superbly observed take on organizational life. Its author, Max Barry, is a hilarious young Australian who acquired a bellyful of anger and a host of precision armaments when he worked for Hewlett-Packard, which, after the appearance of this novel, may have some long-term problems with recruitment. Barry has been inside. You can smell it in his prose, which is equally adept at capturing the vacuity of a corporate mission statement or the back-and-forth of neurotic middle-management weasels crunched in the vice of mandated staff cuts. He has lusted after the hot receptionist when he thought she wasn't looking, marveled at how the person in the corner office is the nuttiest beanbag on the floor, ruminated on compensation structures so convoluted that they actually encourage indolence.
"Sales is a business of relationships, and you must cultivate customers with tenderness and love, like cabbages in winter," he writes in one of his insightful asides, adding, in case you thought he was getting sentimental: "There is something wrong with the kind of person who becomes a sales rep, or if not, there is something wrong after six months."
It isn't just the poor sales reps who are turned into meat in this dehumanized environment. It's all who would seek to call this sterile void home. "The truly flexible company," observes the rather dry, mordant narrator, "doesn't employ people at all. This is the siren song of outsourcing. The seductiveness of the sub-contract. Just try out the words: no employees . Feels good, doesn't it?"
Here it is, if you can stand it: a world without loyalty, friendship and trust, where a missing donut can engender a paranoia-fueled department reorganization. In many spots, Company is laugh-out-loud funny, its humor driven by all the pleasure that a true shock of recognition can bring.
What the book doesn't have is much heart. Maybe that's not necessary if your goal is to stick a pin -- or an even larger implement -- into the gizzard of corporate America, which is ever-ripe for poking. But novels that take place in corporations, just like those on whaling ships, desert planets or remote jungles, must still be peopled by characters that you care about. The most interesting part of Moby-Dick to its author might well have been all that stuff about blubber. But it was Ahab's passion that made the novel more than a fish story.
Still, Company has a lot going for it. You'll get a kick out of the Orwellian insanity of the Zephyr Corporation, which turns out to be your standard totalitarian state and must be overthrown for the good of humanity. You'll end up liking the everyman hero, whose name, naturally, is Jones. And there's even some sex, in the form of the aptly named Eve, an impossibly hot goddess who inhabits the front desk and the dreams of every male employee. But too often these wafer-thin individuals are defined by their function, their hair or whatever single trait is allowed to peep through their twill. In the end, this lack of people we should root for makes Company problematic and not wholly satisfying.
Just because people wear constricting neckwear and worry about their next PowerPoint presentation doesn't mean they're not flesh and blood. Yes, some of us must play on the business battlefield. But if you prick us, do we not bleed? And wouldn't that be fun to watch, too? ·
Stanley Bing is a columnist for Fortune Magazine and the author of the upcoming "Rome, Inc."