Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Just Read: Company by Max Barry

For those of you in senior management, the top-line: Company is not quite as funny as it's been billed as -- and the ending is suspiciously mushy for a satire -- but it's a very pleasant, highly readable modern novel that actually has a point of view and stands for something.

This is a modern satire of capitalism, in which (as usual) a young naif is hired by a nasty, rapacious corporation and soon comes to learn how nasty and rapacious it really is. Too soon, actually -- our hero, Stephen Jones, learns a Big Secret about a third of the way through the book, and everything loses momentum and energy at that point. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Jones as, first, he tries to figure out what Zephyr Holdings actually does, and, second, as he tries to change Zephyr into something better. (There are sub-plots about the other members of the department he joins, but they stay background.)

I don't want to say what that Big Secret is, and it does seem pretty clever at the time of the reveal. But, as the book goes on, having the secret be revealed that early makes the other layers of satire a bit pointless. And the nature of the secret actually works against the book in the long run, by reducing the stakes. (I'll also note that this is yet another media product in which the characters, in a situation where they have information that would be eminently newsworthy and interesting, don't even seem to live in a world with major media that might be interested in such information.)

The best capitalist satires -- the best satires of any kind -- are over the top, full of outrageousness and vivid larger-than life characters. Company, by comparison, sticks a little too close to real life. It has quite a few funny-because-it's-true moments, but no funny-because-it's-better-than-true moments, which are the lifeblood of satire. The best modern satire of capitalism -- I'd even go so far as to call it the Catch-22 of our time -- is Po Bronson's magnificent first novel, Bombardiers. That book is awash in strong personalities, and marinated in a heady stew of vast amounts of money. There's never the same sense of big piles of cash at stake in Company -- this is a novel about wanting to keep a mediocre job, rather than about anything larger. It come pre-downsized, which I suppose is appropriate for the 21st century.

There are a few personalities in Company that could have risen to the needed heights, but Barry keeps humanizing them and trying to make them believable, fully-rounded characters, which works against his satire. He wants to be cutting without cutting anyone in particular, and to say that companies are nasty and soul-destroying without showing anyone whose soul has been destroyed. He can't have it both ways; Company could either have been a novel of character set in a weird company or a really stinging satire, but Barry oscillates back and forth between the two modes. Both are OK in their own right, but each undercuts the other.

Really effective satires of capitalism need to have protagonists who aren't goody-goodies. They can start out as young and naive, but they need to be seduced to the dark side at some point in the book; Jones really never is in Company. (I'll also mention Ted Heller's darkly splendid Slab Rat, as another book that gets this right.)

Once I started picking nits in Company, I started seeing more. Zephyr has the whole of a large building in downtown Seattle, but half of one middle-rank floor is taken up by four cubes, one window office, and one conference room. (I've worked on half-empty floors; they have an eerie darkened quality that would have worked well in this novel. Barry doesn't evoke this, and, in fact, it doesn't seem like there are the large empty spaces that must necessarily be there.) Similarly, Zephyr never considers leasing out some of its space. I might be misled about Oregon law, but a reference or two makes it seem that Zephyr employees work on European-style contracts, rather than American-style "employment at will." (The latter would be much better for Barry's points, too.)

I could go on and on. I shouldn't be thinking about pesky details in a satire, but this one keeps trying to be plausible, instead of visionary, and so the deviations from plausibility -- and there are many of them -- become obvious and grating. Company needed more money, more sex, more violence, just more.

I see I'm being very hard on this book, which is probably unfair: it's a very entertaining read, and I sped through it in three days. It made me think about satire and capitalism, and has some excellent scenes and ideas. But it could have been great, and that's what bugs me. Good books that only ever could have been good won't get me worked up, but a book that could have been much better is like a missing tooth; I can't stop poking at it.

If you think you want to read Company, don't let me stop you; you'll probably like it better than I did. (And I did enjoy every page, so you might well love it.) But the book you really want is Po Bronson's Bombardiers.


Bradford Holden said...

Did you read Jennifer Government? That was another one that could have been much funnier than it was, because he kept trying to humanize people. Well, that and he kept piling up subplots.

Voter Mom said...

I've never thought of rounded, humanized characters as a fault before...

Nadine said...

How about Lloyd:What Happened by Stanley Bing?

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