Company: A Novel
by Max Barry
Greed is Good
A review by Stanley Bing
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,
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.
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