Company by Max Barry

Cover of "Company: A Novel"
Cover of Company: A Novel

Last week we were talking about futuristic novels that posit “what if” type scenarios and then allow the reader to watch them play out. I noted that this is tricky business. If you push things too far you may lose the reader, but if you don’t push things the resulting plot won’t raise interesting questions or stretch our imaginations.

Well, the same can be said of satire. The best satire seems to be that which isn’t afraid to skewer anything and anyone. The best writers seem to be able to push things to the absurd and yet pull it off. This literary reductio ad absurdum not only makes us laugh, but often opens our eyes and makes us think.

In his latest book, simply entitled Company, Max Barry offers up another dose of corporate satire. Not having read his previous works I can’t tell you how this fits in with his previous books. In fact, I was first attracted to it by the large donut on the cover. I am on a low fat and low sugar diet these days (don’t ask) and so the donut called to me from across the bookstore. If I can’t actually eat one maybe I could read about someone who does.

The company involved – Zephyr Holdings, Inc. – doesn’t make donuts but rather serves them at meetings on occasion. The book does, however, start off with a mystery involving a donut. It seems someone ate more than one donut at the office meeting and this sets off a series of recriminations that reverberate throughout the book.

But what exactly is Zephyr and what does it do? What does it produce, sell, trade, or design? This is the mystery that business school graduate and newly hired “Jones” is faced with after just a few days at this typically maddening corporate behemoth. As it turns out, this is the string that will unwind the sweater and Jones just won’t quit pulling. I won’t spoil the plot twist that is central to the book, but it turns out Zephyr is not your typical corporation after all.

But Zephyr is composed of many typical employees: there is Roger the arrogant, good looking, conniving, and infuriatingly successful ladder climber; Freddy the lifer who never manages to get a promotion; Sydney the over-compensating queen boss; Elizabeth the over-eager sales rep who falls in love with every client.

And like a lot of large companies the management of Zephyr rarely seems completely rational or planned out. Paranoia, greed, turf battles, and unintended consequences seem to underly most decisions. Budgets are cut with little concern for long term strategy, reorganizations happen periodically and seemingly without reason, nobody really knows what is going on in human resources but everyone is afraid to ask, etc. Of course, once Barry pulls his plot twist things begin to make a little more sense.

Barry, a long time Hewlett-Packard employee, clearly knows the corporate world. And he does a good job of bringing out the absurdities of life in the “cubicle farm.” Any who has worked in a large organization can appreciate the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Barry successfully highlights the fact that we spend huge chunks of our life with our co-workers but so often know very little about their lives outside of work. A sort of myopia develops where everyone is just thinking about the internal logic of their department, and their place within the system, and fail to understand, or question, the larger picture.

Some of the humor will bring a wry smile to your face while some of it will make you laugh out loud. I personally found the donut vendetta thread very amusing. And I got a kick out of Freddy. He is a well meaning but timid guy who seems to know a lot but can’t turn that knowledge into leverage.

Two things, however, undermine the books punch: an overt moral point and a lack of character development. The two are related. I didn’t find Jones, whose actions initiate the big plot twist and its eventual unraveling, a particularly sympathetic character. His actions result in humorous situations and drive the plot, but his motivations aren’t real clear. Barry uses him to highlight the moral of the story – that employees are people not just cogs in the machine – but that moral seems forced because we don’t know exactly why Jones acts the way he does. For the story to work the temptations he faces and the dilemmas he is confronted with should seem real. To me it felt like Barry rigged the game to get his message across.

Instead of pushing his satire and letting the humor speak for itself, Barry seemed to feel he had to make the message implicit and obvious. For this to work we need to know more about Jones and his fellow employees, to care about them as the humans Barry insists that they are. Instead, they feel like caricature – very funny caricatures at times – and the message bogs down the satire.

That said, if you work in a cubicle and wonder what in the world management is up to most days, you will get a kick out of Barry’s latest. It was a little flat in places and lacked the edge of great satire, but I still found Company to be a funny and imaginative take on life in the corporate world.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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