Company, by Max Barry
After writing two novels  dealing with real companies before which he had to write abject disclaimer notices begging the companies not to sue him for the ridiculous and over-the-top activities that he wrote about, Max Barry wised up and started writing about fictional companies that behave as real life companies might, but since they are fictional companies they do not have real legal departments and hence cannot sue, fortunately for us and for the author. This particular book hits close to home, both because the company seems strangely similar to the one I work for in being a large holding company with a lot of internal customer relationships and because the book as a whole is a spoof of management techniques I am familiar with from my graduate studies in engineering management . The result is that this book is humorous, but a lot of the humor was a bit awkward and uncomfortable for me, as it will likely be for many other people as well. The story is fairly familiar, if less violent, than a typical book by the author, but it demonstrates his concern for corporate behavior in the contemporary world in an exemplary way.
The plot itself is rather simple. A newly hired college graduate finds himself in a dysfunctional corporate environment and decides to be curious and ask questions and investigate about his world, winning the interest of a beautiful but somewhat psychotic receptionist who drives a sports car and is clearly being paid pretty well and becoming part of an elite team that uses the rest of the company as a laboratory for determining morale and productivity to draw conclusions and insight from. In the midst of this environment we deal with office romances and their consequences (including pregnancy), the anger that results when people have their donuts stolen by coworkers, and the way that companies often fail to leverage their internal knowledge because they do not know what their employees know. There are fake corporate rivals to be found, and a somewhat overly convenient corporate revolt that leads first to the sacking of upper management after a botched reorganization and then to a violent assault on the elites themselves. The book is full of humorous insights about the way that people are labeled and slotted and what happens when one tries to have a conscience among the corporate elite.
Overall, this is a successful album. If it is less biting than most of the author’s other work, it is at least a novel that hits close to home. This is a more subdued work than the author’s usual, and would make for a particularly interesting film adaptation, not least because it would be far less expensive than most of the other works of the author in terms of the special effects that would be needed. There are the sort of jokes about IT, for example, and smokers, and the ineffectiveness but necessity of upper management and the dangers of what happens when morale is kept too low for too long in a company that serves no purpose whatsoever because it has no customers. One wonders how the company was able to have a stock value at all. This book is a subtle one, but subtle in a way that it serves to criticize all the more effectively the corporate trends that fill the world of those of us who study management methods and ponder why it is that so many companies are run so poorly. This is a book to enjoy and laugh at, but also one that has some deep questions that it asks us about ourselves and about how we find meaning in life and work.
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