Monday morning and there’s one less donut than there should be.
Keen observers note the reduced mass straightaway but stay silent, because saying, “Hey, is that only seven donuts?” would betray their donut experience. It’s not great for your career to be known as the person who can spot the difference between seven and eight donuts at a glance. Everyone studiously avoids mentioning the missing donut until Roger turns up and sees the empty plate.
Roger says, “Where’s my donut?”
Occasionally a novel comes along that reminds me why I am so grateful that I work from home. Company, by Max Barry, is such a novel.
Like his previous novel, Jennifer Government, Company cynically skewers life in cubicle land. Unlike Jennifer Government, Company takes place in the present day, rather than some dystopian future. It’s the type of thing that could theoretically happen in most people’s lives. Since reading the book doesn’t require accepting an entirely different universe, it’s more relatable. Also, since Barry uses today’s world, the reader can focus more on the story itself, and less on understanding a new context.
The book is similar in tone to the movie “Office Space,” but the scope iis much bigger. If you enjoyed that movie, you may want to pick up this book.
Characters in the book cynically work around the impediments that senior management throws in front of them.
Jones says, “So with this freeze, how did you hire me?’
“It was Freddy’s idea. We process your salary as office expenses. Copy paper, specifically”
“That reminds me,” Freddy says to Holly, “do you have to xerox all of Elizabeth’s orders? Because the paper in that machine has to last until January.”
“We probably won’t last until January. I might as well xerox while I can.”
“I’m copy paper?” Jones says.
“Don’t worry, it’s just a paperwork thing. It doesn’t affect anything. Well, unless they cut our stationery budget. But there’s nothing to sweat about, this is just a little creative accounting. It goes on all the time.”
Large portions of the books are about the unintended consequences of senior management decisions. What happens when you cut the budgets so far that a department can’t function properly? Or when you pit departments against one another?
“Infrastructure Management bills for windows. Covering them up cut our overhead by 8 percent. But we’re just getting started. Today we’re getting rid of our desks and chairs. We figure we don’t really need them anymore, since we’re not doing any marketing. And it’s way better feng shui. We’ll put the computers on the carpet.”
“What do you use the computers for?”
The communications manager’s eyes widen. “Hey hey. That’s the kind of thinking we could use in marketing. That’s a great idea.”
Holly stops crunching. “If you’re not actually doing any marketing, aren’t you worried they’ll cut you?”
“With expenses this low? Which company do you work for?” She laughs. Her ponytail swishes.
Salespeople who really focus on their clients are doomed to be disappointed. Especially because the clients they are selling to are other departments.
On level 14, Elizabeth is falling in love. This is what makes her such a good sales rep, and an emotional basket case: she falls in love with her customers. It is hard to convey just how wretchedly, boot-lickingly draining it is to be a salesperson. Sales is a business of relationships, and you must cultivate customers with tenderness and love, like cabbages in winter, even if the customer is an egomaniacal asshole you want to hit with a shovel. There is something wrong with the kind of person who becomes a sales rep, or if not, there is something wrong after six months.
Elizabeth doesn’t rely on the usual facades of friendship and illusions of intimacy: she forms actual attachments. For Elizabeth, each new lead is a handsome stranger in a nightclub. When they dance, she grows giddy with the rush of possibilities. If he doesn’t like her product offering. she dies. If he talks about sizable orders, she feels the urge to move in with him.
My favorite story is one that explores how absurd practices can be perpetuated.
Holly folds her hands on her desk. “These chimps, they’re in a cage, and the scientists poke in a banana on a stick. The chimps try to grab it, but as soon as they do. the scientists electrify the floor, so all the chimps get a shock. This goes on until the chimps learn that touching a banana equals electric shock. Right? Then the scientists take one chimp out and put in a new one. This chimp, when he goes to grab the banana, he gets beaten up by all the others, because they don’t want to get shocked. You see?”
“That’s a terrible story,” Jones says.
“The scientists keep switching chimps, one at a time. until none of the originals are left. Then they add one more. The new chimp, he goes for the banana and the others jump him, same as before. But, see, none of them was ever shocked. They don’t know why they’re doing it. They just know that’s the way they do things.”
“So I’m the new chimp.”
“You’re the new chimp. Don’t try to understand the company. Just go with it.”
Page 49 - 50
The natural evolution of a company is to a slow, stagnating death.
Last is what The Omega Management System officially calls Realignment but is privately referred to by Project Alpha agents as “Evacuation.” This is when all the employees who are unhappy with their new role polish their resumes and start trying to find a better job somewhere else. If they’re successful, they leave; otherwise they stay, along with those who were close enough to Senior Management to be tossed a political scrap. In essence, the company is quickly reduced to to the incompetent and the corrupt. But it will struggle forward, laboring for as long as possible under the illusion that it is suffering from mere teething issues and not a deep, systemic sodomy of the entire corporate structure, until that becomes impossible and Senior Management does the only thing it can: announce a reorganization.
The story has a number of surprise twists, and we get to follow the various characters along their growth paths. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, so I won’t go into detail on that, but the plot is solid and the moves at a decent pace.
The book does not glorify the cubicle worker who drives the white collar world. In political squabbles small and large, they are no better than the mythical senior management.
What I like most about the book is Barry’s humorous style. It’s funny despite its darkness. the characters are a little flat, but not distractingly slow.
The action sequences and epilogue could have been tighter and clearer, but they were still good.
If you’re interested in a novel that satirizes corporate life, or are just looking for something to read in your cube when you don’t think the boss is watching, pick up Max Barry’s “Company.”
You can see more of my book reviews here.