Office life feels like it was prefabricated for satire, and yet we get so few wickedly funny novels about it. Perhaps the deskbound realm is just too absurd for satire. Given the conditions of cubicle work — that beige hellscape of numbing distractions and repressed misery — what’s left for a comic writer to exaggerate? And besides, who needs it? The supply closet sometimes runs out of Post-it Notes, but it’s never short on gallows humor. Why trudge home from a demoralizing day of budget memos and goal setting to curl up with a story about budget memos and goal setting?
But periodically a writer captures the pattern of comedy and tragedy that peppers office life like alternating colors of carpet squares. The last great example came in 2007: Just when the economy started vomiting up millions of pink slips, Joshua Ferris published his debut novel, “Then We Came to the End.” As a comedian, his timing was flawless. And as an economic historian, he was downright prophetic.
Jillian Medoff knows corporate America equally well, perhaps even more intimately. She once worked for Deloitte, the multinational professional services network that exists so that Don DeLillo doesn’t have to invent it. In addition to three previous novels, Medoff’s résumé includes stints as a management consultant, a communication strategist and all manner of related workplace necromancy. The cover of her new novel, “This Could Hurt,” is an employee termination checklist.
The story opens in 2009, amid the wreckage of the Great Recession. At a small market-research firm in New York, the HR department has already been cut in half. “Despair had set in,” Medoff writes, but HR Director Rosa Guerrero is optimistic. Rosa had “elevated HR from a ragtag bunch of clueless clerks into a team of professionals,” and she knows they can get through this rough spot if they’re smart and nimble.
Unfortunately, they’re not smart or nimble. They’re human, which is to say they’re scared, self-interested and indebted. Among Rosa’s employees is a depressed VP of operations who’s skimming money off his clients’ contracts; a VP of employee benefits who “couldn’t say how his life had come undone”; and an associate director of recruiting who vacillates between moments of intense dedication and long periods of lassitude filled with self-loathing. “Rejecting people every day has eaten out my gut,” he confesses only to himself.
Together, Rosa and her team of desperate middle-managers are charged with guiding the company’s “human relations,” a term that feels increasingly anachronistic at a time when the company is dedicated to freeing itself from relations with as many humans as possible. While the recession grinds on, “This Could Hurt” rotates through these characters, one per chapter, sometimes showing us the same meeting or conversation from different points of view.
Medoff exploits that structure to illustrate how delusional Rosa’s staff can be, how willfully they misinterpret what’s happening. They all know “there was a vast gulf between being employed and not,” and the terror of plunging into that gulf encourages them to exaggerate their skills and downplay their weaknesses. They cling to perfunctory compliments while forgetting direct criticisms. They fantasize about promotions until the moment they’re fired — sometimes even until moments after they’re fired. The whole cast is a comic reflection on a class of expensively educated people with burdensome mortgages who pull down high salaries for work that never seems to get done.
“This Could Hurt” also plays lightly with the conventions of corporate discourse. Among the book’s clever touches are organizational charts dropped into the pages to keep us up to date with everyone’s movement in and out of the company. Chapters about the VP of communications and policy are footnoted like a business report with mock explanations and qualifications. And one of the novel’s funniest set pieces describes the company’s annual employee morale survey, which is “delayed, reconceived, put off, and then abandoned entirely.”
As smart as Medoff’s critique of corporate inanity is, it’s tempered by compassion for these people, who are ultimately tender with each other, too. While they know the company exists solely to maximize profits, they can’t help but form relationships, and those relationships complicate the bottom line. No one understands that paradox better than 64-year-old Rosa, a savvy manager who nurtures employees within a system determined to eliminate them.
Through the subterranean strata of this failing office run alliances and feuds, love affairs and betrayals that influence raises, promotions and dismissals. And when Rosa herself gets in trouble, how far will her beloved staff go to protect her from the rigid mechanics of the corporation? The answer to that question becomes the story’s central problem, its funniest routine and its most moving element.
“Business isn’t emotional,” Rosa says, “but people are, so the lines get blurry.” Within that blurriness, Medoff finds plenty of hurt — but strains of hope, too.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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By Jillian Medoff
Harper. 375 pp. $26.99