So little has been written about our lives in the office that it seems there's been a massive act of denial, literary and psychological. What is it about work that we don't want to face?
Is it that we don't really do very much with our days? That we waste time? That pushing paper doesn't contribute to the greater glory of mankind? That we worry more about office politics than about productive pursuits? Or is what we're denying, very simply, the fear? As George Lee Walker writes on the first page of "The Chronicles of Doodah," a wonderful little novel about life and death in a giant corporation:
"At first, I don't want to talk about the fear to anybody. It's just another layer on top of those that already exist, all the fears that most company people have -- fear of the boss, fear of making mistakes, fear of embarrassment, fear of losing your job, fear of not getting promoted like everyone wants to be. All of those are definable fears, not as bad as the nameless fear that you worry about the most."
Walker's nameless hero is a speech writer for an auto company, which is what Walker himself once was at Ford (for Lee Iacocca) and American Motors. Walker has also written for former governor George Romney and former president Gerald Ford.
The hero writes meaningless speeches that are routed to dozens of departments and come back even more fatuous. His triumph is a piece of nonsense titled "The Future Is Tomorrow," which the head of the speech-writing department calls "simply the greatest speech that was ever given in this country. Simply the greatest, and I'm not kidding."
But the hero has a bad attitude. He lacks enthusiasm. He has hallucinations (he thinks) and psychic absences. So he's sent to the Troubled Employee Department for a corporate make-over, achieved with a great deal of intimidation and violence. He learns how to smile and walk and talk. He wins high marks. The Sociability Training Group gives him "an A in Conversational Appropriateness, an A- in Executive Humor, and an A in Sports Expertise."
The hero is promoted, gets a big new office, "a top-of-the-line casket, a splendid bronze sarcophagus lined with satin and attended by a dozen fawning morticians."
The plot isn't much, and the characters, as in most satires and farces, lack subtlety (still, you will recognize many of them, like Kreiznach, whose title, director of communications planning, is "a triumph of obfuscation . . . You do not ask a direct and pertinent question such as, 'But what exactly do you do?' "). The chapters on the Troubled Employee torture chamber are tedious when they aren't jarringly bloody. And the bitterness of some of the humor grates. But, as one of the few evocations of the mind at the office, "The Chronicles of Doodah" ("doodah" being akin to "dada") is very, very good.
Here is the hero, summoned by his boss:
"We pass a mirror, thoughtfully placed in the corridor to let the alert careerist adjust his appearance before reporting to a superior. I look at myself and see the beaten, slumped reflection of corporate man, the worried face, the sagging shoulders, the look of passive despair. Is this, I ask myself, the thing the Lord God made to have dominion over land and sea? Only two hundred years before this, Indians stalked game on the very spot where this building stands, or silently pursued their enemies through forest paths as dark as night. We have come a long way since then, I think. Now we worry about the crease of our trousers, the tenor of our voices."
Walker's hero -- and Walker -- are more than just paranoid and grouchy. They're on to something important, and this book, despite its frequent lapses into the obvious, is a fine first crack at examining what has gone unexamined for so long. It reminds us, among other things, of the disguises we wear for a third of our lives:
"The most successful corporate people are simply skilled actors who can play well to any audience. To those beneath them, they are contemptuous, cruel, and demanding. To those above, they must appear respectful and devoted. But the greatest danger to people who take up a life of company stagecraft is the danger of overacting."
Not to mention the danger of overwriting. But Walker is forgiven. He's broken a taboo of silence and written a bright, funny, intelligent first novel.