April 13, 2006

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Company, by Max Barry (Doubleday, 2006, 338 pages)

Work in an office for any amount of time and you will find yourself caring deeply, passionately — more than you do about, say, your family — about something extremely trivial.

A parking space, who refills the printer paper, your mug — these things will matter to you on such a fundamental level that if someone does something to rock the mug or parking-space boat you will feel as deeply affected as if somebody questioned the validity of your religious beliefs. At Zephyr Holdings, a training sales rep. named Roger will destroy the career of one man and all but destroy two others in order to find out what happened to his donut. The office received eight donuts (as he found out after careful investigation), one for each of the eight employees, but when he went to get his there were none. No donuts. It was, to him, a declaration of war.

The absolute single-mindedness of Roger’s search for his donut is one example of the many details that make Max Barry’s new novel Company such a fantastic read. Zephyr Holdings is an unremarkable corporate entity where each employee has been conditioned to do his job and only his job (regardless of how nonsensical it might be) and never ask questions. On the outside, each employee seems the very model of corporate blandness. Inside, each is an individual melodrama. And, though they joke with each other and lunch with each other, each seems prepared to rip the still-beating heart out of any of his co-workers to get ahead or, at least, stay employed.

Into this cauldron comes Jones, a fresh-faced recent graduate. Though his coworkers tell him to simply be the “new chimp” (which would require him to do what they do and don’t ask questions), Jones wants to know things. Like, why sales associates would start canceling orders when they hear that high commissions can get you laid off. Like, why you can’t just go see the boss with your problems. Like, why nobody seems to know what the company does.

What Zephyr Holdings really does quickly becomes Jones’ obsession (its mission statement says the company “aims to build and consolidate leadership positions in its chosen markets, forging profitable growth opportunities by developing strong relationships between internal and external business units and coordinating a strategic, consolidated approach to achieve maximum returns for its stakeholders” — which, if you work in any kind of corporate culture, you have to read a few times before really getting how much nothing it says). His pursuit and discovery of Zephyr Holdings’ real purpose gives the book the juice it needs to really get going (though, really, the donut stuff I could read all day). He begins to question the ethics of what the company does and is certain that there has to be a better way, that business does not need to chip away at your soul to be successful.

Brightly written and breezy to read, Company is a darker, alternate-reality version of The Office but with the same sense of laugh-until-you-cry-tears-of-anguish familiarity. A

— Amy Diaz


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