NationStates Jolt Archive

NYT Company Review

08-02-2006, 06:14
The review is located here (, but for those that can't be bothered to register...

I don't *think* this has spoilers in it, so if you haven't had the chance to get the great book, you can salivate over it a little bit more before you do get it. :p

Books of the Times | 'Company'
The Dark Corner of Dilbert's Cubicle
Published: February 6, 2006

The huddled masses in Max Barry's hilarious new novel, "Company," can be found crammed inside the Seattle corporate headquarters of Zephyr Holdings. What does Zephyr Holdings hold? Nothing. What is its office building like? "It is a building designed by committee," Mr. Barry explains. "All they have been able to agree on is that it should be rectangular, have windows, and not fall over."

On Page 7 of his latest fever dream about big business (after the wild fabulist escapades of "Syrup" and "Jennifer Government"), Mr. Barry underscores his credentials as both satirist and saboteur. He presents a one-paragraph Mission Statement that is a marvel. He has put real words ("consolidate," "profitable," "strategic") on the page. You can see them. But they have been perfectly arranged to flummox the brain. The paragraph is a perfect specimen of corporate-speak: impressive to gaze upon, totally impossible to read.

In a book dedicated to Hewlett-Packard, which once made the silly, silly mistake of employing Mr. Barry, the secrets and lies of corporate culture are explored with sharp, absurdist precision. Joseph Heller did it better, but not by much. Mr. Barry, an Australian writer with a mad gleam and a college education in marketing, invents a rats' nest of warring departments and scheming, back-biting employees, all manipulated by a Senior Management staff of exceptional ruthlessness.

"If Senior Management was ever made up of selfless individuals who put teamwork ahead of self-interest — and this is a big if," Mr. Barry writes, "they were long ago torn to pieces." Into this fray comes handsome, idealistic Stephen Jones, a newcomer of such clonelike perfection that some Zephyr cynics wonder whether he has a navel. This much is certain: Jones has a mouth, and it asks too many questions. For instance, Jones wonders why his salary has been hidden within the budget for office expenses ("I'm copy paper?) just because he arrived in the midst of a hiring freeze. And he begins to wonder why Zephyr, though a hive of activity, seems to have no real customers and no real work to do.

A third of the way into "Company," Mr. Barry unveils a surprise: this satirical novel also has an element of science fiction. It mustn't be spoiled here. But the place is alive with trickery, and its employees' already borderline personalities are at risk. As the book says of one Zephyr worker: "If Elizabeth's brain was a person, it would have scars, tattoos, and be missing one eye. If you saw it coming, you would cross the street." Gathering his readers around a figurative campfire, Mr. Barry explains what work used to be like. "There are stories — legends, really — of the 'steady job,' " he writes. "Old-timers gather graduates around the flickering light of a computer monitor and tell stories of how the company used to be, back when a job was for life, not just for the business cycle." But in the book's funhouse-mirror world, flexibility is the new ideal. "Flexible jobs allow employees to share in the company's ups and downs; well, not so much the ups," Mr. Barry writes. Desperate Zephyr workers do their best to keep up with the parsimonious atmosphere. "Every day we identify new ways to lower expenses," a colleague explains to Jones. "Just yesterday, we boarded up our office windows."

"Company" is Mr. Barry's breakout book. It's also his most conventional. In "Syrup" he took on the Coca-Cola Company (nothing else he writes is quite as sidesplitting as his disclaimers of malicious intent) and made wicked fun of hot young marketing types, the ones who favor quirky names. He himself test-drove the name Maxx Barry, though nobody got the joke. "Jennifer Government" was also convolutedly clever, but it worked hard to achieve its anarchic spirit.

In "Company" the characters are more breezily conceived. This is not to say that the author's world has lost its warped mystique, just that he has made it more — yes — marketable. "Being John Malkovich" is one of his favorite films, and its influence is felt when "Company," both psychically and literally, lands in the limbo between elevator floors. Mr. Barry has sometimes been compared to Chuck Palahniuk for his rebellious bravado, but he has much more in common with Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter with such an easy affinity for the Orwellian surreal.

"Company" eventually faces the problem inherent to paranoid fantasy: once the secrets are revealed, what happens next? Mr. Barry is far better equipped to zap Zephyr than to make it a more positive, productive, life-affirming place. He perfectly understands the company's problems. ("If Senior Management captained a ship, it would take twice as long to reach its destination and have been completely rebuilt en route.") But he is less astute about Zephyr's merits, possibly because there aren't any.

The closest he comes to humanizing Zephyr is to make Jones fall reflexively for Mr. Barry's favorite type of female character, this time named Eve: a cool, selfish, elusive beauty. "She shouldn't be here," a co-worker confides to Jones. "Her ideal job would be giving lethal injections in San Quentin."

Occasionally, "Company" is flimsy: its central conceit, about a stolen doughnut that occasions much pouting and sniping (and is seen on the book's cover), isn't worth the attention it's given. And some of the corporate types at Zephyr are slightly generic. But Mr. Barry is a deft and focused satirist, and his sense of business ethics is right on the money. "I just want to know that we treat our employees properly," Jones insists. "That we, you know, care about them."

"Honestly?" he is told by one of the real powers at Zephyr. "We don't."