Monday, March 24, 2008

And you thought your boss was sadistic?

Title: Company
Author: Max Barry


But at last it’s over. The final reorganization plan, which gives every employee something to be happy about, so long as they work in Senior Management, reduces the number of Zephyr departments by a whopping 70 percent. Many departments are out entirely, but most were rolled together, creating new departments with all of the responsibilities of two. Or three. Or, in one case, five. The plan is passed around the table, and as each Senior Management signature is added, hideous new creatures are formed from the stitching together of departmental organs. With the slash of a pen, Security is grafted onto Human Resources. Large, flapping sections of Legal are sewn into place. For reasons that have nothing to do with operating efficiency and everything to do with hardball bargaining between executives, the sole remaining Credit employee is stapled on. Lightning crashes outside the boardroom window as Senior Management finally, exhaustedly, attaches a departmental head. And there it is: a new department. Senior Management has given birth, right there in the board room. Its progeny lies on the table, a cruel abomination of nature, sucking its first foul breath. Its yellow eyes glint balefully. Its limbs curl and flop on the polished oak. It throws back its ill-fitting head and roars with life, or something similar.

Below, the scattered few employees still at work pause and look up. Their bowels tighten. They exchange frightened looks. No one puts it into words, but everyone feels it. Something evil has come into the world.

Max Barry’s Company is a clever premise, but not much more. Stephen Jones, an idealistic young business school grad, starts a job with Zephyr Holdings, but soon becomes horrified when he realizes that no one – neither employee nor manager nor cafeteria engineer – knows what the company actually does. The only thing everyone can agree on is that they are overwhelmingly miserable, and yet terrified to lose the security of their jobs. (Jones’ own department sells training packages to other Zephyr departments.)

Jones, determined to solve the mystery of Zephyr, soon stumbles upon a horrifying truth: Zephyr isn’t a company in the traditional sense at all. Rather, it’s an elaborate laboratory that its leaders use for management technique experiments, so that they can then market these management techniques to other, more real, companies. Essentially, all Zephyr employees are lab rats used to see how much misery can be inflicted upon a human being in the name of corporate efficiency before a mass revolt breaks out. Twisted.

Like I said, clever. But everything about this book, aside from its central conceit, is forgettable. Characters are as clichéd as the “cardboard cutout” cliché they’re most aptly described by. Barry’s writing, while sharp and glittering and amusing, lacks depth. And the madcap climax stretches suspension of belief far past the breaking point, before petering out to a whimpering conclusion that fails to make any impression. I was definitely left wanting more.

So a book worth reading, especially for those who suffer daily under the yoke of corporate bureaucracy. But Dilbert’s better.

That said, I really love the above passage describing the birth of a new department. Definitely the highlight of the entire book.

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posted by Elizabeth at 7:43 PM


Blogger reyn said...

I once read a short story wherein isolated cities were locked in ceaseless wars because society had discovered that we needed for war to exist in order to survive. Something about knowing it was there. The people in these cities were orphans who were given backstories and families made of other orphans and reasons to hate the faction on the other side of the city so the war would go on forever. The generals commanded everything from the fringes, but of course they were running both sides to make sure nobody ever clearly won.

This story scares me more.

3/25/2008 9:46 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Want to to borrow it?

Remember the name of that story? Sounds interesting.

3/25/2008 7:05 PM  

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