This debut novel about life in a Chicago advertising agency succeeds as both a wickedly incisive satire of office groupthink and a surprisingly moving meditation on mortality and the ties that band.
Though Ferris only briefly invokes Catch-22, he transfers that novel’s absurdist logic, insider’s jargon and indelibly quirky characterizations to the business of brainstorming and creating advertising—or at least pretending to stay busy lest one be considered dispensable. After the breezy pacing of the opening chapters presents the cast as indiscriminately eccentric, the plot deepens and relationships become more complicated, with the individual eccentricities of the characters defining their humanity. During a downturn in business, people keep disappearing, either fired or dead. Fired is worse, especially for those who remain, because the fired often refuse to disappear. These coworkers know each other like no outsider can, yet generally have little idea what the lives of their fellow employees are like outside the cubicle. In fact, the novel rarely ventures beyond the cubicle and the conference room, making Ferris’s ability to sustain narrative momentum all the more impressive. The narrator is an ingenious device, a nameless one who uses the third-person “we” to suggest that he (or she) might be any one of the office group. Yet since most or all within the office show that their perceptions are seriously skewed, the reader is never quite sure how much the narrator can be trusted. There’s a crucial interlude, a chapter in which the “we” disappears, and a character who had seemed more like a caricature to those who work for her reveals her flesh-and-blood complexity and ultimately raises the novel to a higher literary level.
The funhouse mirror here reflects the office dynamic at its most petty and profound.
“Time’s a goon,” as the action moves from the late 1970s to the early 2020s while the characters wonder what happened to their youthful selves and ideals.
Egan (The Keep, 2006, etc.) takes the music business as a case in point for society’s monumental shift from the analog to the digital age. Record-company executive Bennie Salazar and his former bandmates from the Flaming Dildos form one locus of action; another is Bennie’s former assistant Sasha, a compulsive thief club-hopping in Manhattan when we meet her as the novel opens, a mother of two living out West in the desert as it closes a decade and a half later with an update on the man she picked up and robbed in the first chapter. It can be alienating when a narrative bounces from character to character, emphasizing interconnections rather than developing a continuous story line, but Egan conveys personality so swiftly and with such empathy that we remain engaged. By the time the novel arrives at the year “202-” in a bold section narrated by Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter Alison, readers are ready to see the poetry and pathos in the small nuggets of information Alison arranges like a PowerPoint presentation. In the closing chapter, Bennie hires young dad Alex to find 50 “parrots” (paid touts masquerading as fans) to create “authentic” word of mouth for a concert. This new kind of viral marketing is aimed at “pointers,” toddlers now able to shop for themselves thanks to “kiddie handsets”; the preference of young adults for texting over talking is another creepily plausible element of Egan’s near-future. Yet she is not a conventional dystopian novelist; distinctions between the virtual and the real may be breaking down in this world, but her characters have recognizable emotions and convictions, which is why their compromises and uncertainties continue to move us.
Another ambitious change of pace from talented and visionary Egan, who reinvents the novel for the 21st century while affirming its historic values.
From Semple (This One Is Mine, 2008), a cleverly constructed Internet-age domestic comedy about a wife/mother/genius architect who goes a little nuts from living in that cesspool of perfection and bad weather called Seattle.
Bernadette left Los Angeles years earlier after a professional disaster: After she won a MacArthur grant for building a house using only materials that originated within 20 miles of the site, vengeful neighbors had the house destroyed. Now she lives in Seattle with her equally genius husband, Elgie, who is working on a big project in artificial intelligence at Microsoft, and their genius eighth-grade daughter, Bee, whose devotion to her mother is one of the novel’s least credible plot points. Bernadette may be brilliant and funny, but she is also mean-spirited and self-absorbed, with a definite case of entitlement that the author too frequently seems to share. She certainly hates everything about Seattle, especially the other mothers at Bee’s crunchy-granola private school. Because she hates to leave her house, a crumbling ruin she’s never bothered to renovate, she has hired a personal assistant in India to run her life via the Internet. After her vendetta against one of her Seattle mommy-enemies goes terribly awry, Elgie begins to wonder if she is having a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, Bernadette decides she wants to get out of a planned family trip to Antarctica. Days before the trip, in the middle of an intervention Elgie has plotted with his adoring administrative assistant, Bernadette disappears. To makes sense of the disappearance, Bee creates a book by collating the Internet postings, public records and private emails she has received from an anonymous source. Although there are wonderful scenes of deadpan absurdity—Semple wrote for Arrested Development—Seattle, already the butt of so much humor lately, seems an awfully easy mark. The tone is sharply witty if slightly condescending, but ultimately Semple goes for the heartstrings.
A fun beach read for urban sophisticates or those who think they are.
Plucky bride-to-be makes an unexpected connection after she appropriates a stranger’s cellphone.
For Poppy Wyatt, losing her priceless antique engagement ring during a boozy pre-wedding brunch at a fancy hotel is bad enough without the added indignity of having her phone nicked by a drive-by bike mugger. All is not lost, though, as she discovers a perfectly good phone in the trash in the hotel lobby. Anxious to get the ring back without alarming her fiance Magnus, she gives out the new number to the concierge and her friends. But the phone, it turns out, belonged to the short-lived assistant to Sam Roxton, an acerbic (but handsome) young executive in a powerful consulting firm. Given to one-word correspondence, with little patience for small talk and social niceties, Sam understandably wants the company property back. But Poppy has other ideas and talks him into letting her keep it for a few more days, offering to forward him all pertinent messages. In spite of Sam’s reticence, the two strike up an oddly intimate text correspondence, with Poppy taking a way too personal interest in Sam’s life—including his odd relationship with his seemingly crazy girlfriend, Willow. Sam, for his part, confronts Poppy over her fears that she is not good enough for Magnus’ highly-educated family. Misunderstandings ensue, with Poppy’s well-intentioned meddling causing multiple headaches. But when Sam gets embroiled in a corporate scandal, Poppy jumps in to help him in the only way she can. Meanwhile, a scheming wedding planner, and Poppy’s conflicted feelings for Sam, threaten to derail the planned nuptials. Cheerfully contrived with a male love interest straight out of the Mr. Darcy playbook, Kinsella’s (Twenties Girl, 2009, etc.) latest should be exactly what her fans are hankering for. And physical therapist Poppy is easily as charming and daffy as shopaholic Rebecca Bloomwood—minus the retail obsession.
Screwball romance with a likable and vulnerable heroine.
An entertaining, if slightly disappointing, debut.
The setting is an office. The goods and/or services provided by the company depicted are never defined, but, clearly, business is not good. There have been firings. Using the first-person plural, Park creates a kind of collective narrator to explore the lives of employees still clinging to their jobs. The use of the first-person plural is a bold, distinctive choice, driving home the point that office jobs have the capacity to render the individual irrelevant, but it would have looked a little bolder and a whole lot more distinctive if Joshua Ferris hadn’t done exactly the same thing in the National Book Award finalist Then We Came to the End (2007). The two novels are not—despite several notable similarities—quite as indistinguishable. Park’s assay is shorter, for one thing, and it closes with a 40-plus page sentence (presented in the form of a letter). This passage is easier to read than one might expect: Park ends his tale of commonplace drudgery by turning it into an office thriller. Dark secrets are revealed, nefarious plots foiled. The ending is both gripping and disappointing. Park is very good at capturing the frustrations, fears and small pleasures flourishing amid the cubicles. His office-party vignettes, meditations on Microsoft products and depictions of people who are trying to retain their humanity in an environment which makes them interchangeable coalesce into a touching, funny group portrait of corporate underlings everywhere. He undermines this accomplishment, though, when he gives his story a villain—an evil madman, no less—rather than letting the bad guy be the office itself.
Kind of like if Office Space ended with scenes from the Kevin Costner vehicle Mr. Brooks.
A rueful mood piece from prolific, eclectic O’Nan (The Good Wife, 2005, etc.) about the closing of a chain restaurant.
On a snowy morning just a few days before Christmas, general manager Manny DeLeon opens the Red Lobster in New Britain, Conn., for the last time. Corporate ownership is closing this branch near a dying mall, and though Manny is moving to the Olive Garden in Bristol (with a demotion to assistant manager), he can take only four people with him. Unsurprisingly, most of the understandably pissed-off, soon-to-be-unemployed workers don’t bother to show for the last shift. O’Nan paints a vivid picture of the world of minimum-wage labor, where people have little incentive to be responsible or reliable. Manny is both, scrambling to keep the restaurant running smoothly in the middle of a blizzard, even though it’s the last day and no one cares but him. Personally, he’s less upright. He doesn’t want to marry his pregnant girlfriend Deena and still carries a torch for Jacquie, a waitress who’s refused to come to the Olive Garden because their affair is over. There’s hardly any plot here, just the frantic rush to serve lunch—O’Nan’s depiction of the complex organization of meal preparation and service is the best since Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential—and the long wait through a sparsely populated dinner to shut the place down forever. Customers from hell and surly staff interact in a dance of clashing personalities that would be a marvelous comedy of manners if the overall tone weren’t so sad. In his mid-30s, Manny is plagued by regret over Jacquie and not terribly optimistic about his future. O’Nan hews to a neglected literary tradition by focusing his sympathetic attention on people with few options. He offers no political message, merely the reminder that blue-collar lives are as charged with moral quandaries and professional difficulties as those of their better-dressed, more affluent fellow Americans.
Very low-key, but haunting and quietly provocative.
An English-language newspaper headquartered in Rome brings together a strongly imagined cast of characters in journalist Rachman’s first novel.
Lloyd Burko used to be a stringer living in Paris. He’s still in Paris, but now he’s just an impoverished former journalist who pretends to have a computer and whose latest wife has moved in with the guy across the hall. Arthur Gopal is languishing as an obituary writer until a death in his own life enables his advancement by erasing his humanity. Hardy Benjamin is a business writer, savvy and knowledgeable about corporate finance but utterly hapless in romance. What they have in common is the never-named paper, whose history is doled out in brief chapters beginning in 1953. The novel’s rich representation of expatriate existence surely benefits from the author’s experiences as an AP correspondent in Rome and an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris; his thoroughly unglamorous depictions of newsroom cubicles and editorial offices will resonate with anyone who’s had a corporate job. But, while the newspaper is its unifying factor, the narrative’s heart beats with the people who work there. Rachman’s ability to create a diverse group of fully formed individuals is remarkable. Characters range from a kid just out of college who learns the hard way that he doesn’t want to be a reporter, to an Italian diplomat’s widow. Some are instantly sympathetic, others hard to like. Each is vivid and compelling in his or her own way. The individual stories work well independently, even better as the author skillfully weaves them together. Cameo appearances become significant when informed by everything the reader already knows about a character who flits in and out of another’s story. The novel isn’t perfect. The interpolated chapters about the paper’s past aren’t very interesting; the final entry ends with a ghastly shock; and the postscript is too cute. Nevertheless, it’s a very strong debut.
Danish author Jungersen’s second novel, a bestseller in Europe and his first to be translated into English, suggests a connection between office politics and genocide; the book won Denmark’s Golden Laurels prize.
In the office of the nonprofit Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), five people work in too-close proximity to one another. Iben is an intellectual who writes tracts on the psychology of evil. A few months earlier she had been briefly held as a hostage in Kenya, so she has witnessed hatred first hand. Her best friend Malene had helped her get her job at DCIG, but what began as a source of gratitude is gradually becoming a source of resentment. Paul is the effective leader of the organization on a macroscopic level, but he’s an ineffectual arbiter of office politics. When Iben receives a life-threatening e-mail, her first thought is that it came from Mirko Zigic, a Serbian war criminal on whom Iben has written an exposé, but other possibilities emerge. Could it have been Anne-Lise, the librarian ostracized by others in the office and perhaps trying to get revenge? Or Malene, who accuses others of having a split personality but who might be suffering from the pathology herself? When Malene’s boyfriend Rasmus is killed after trying to track down the source of the e-mail, everyone becomes a suspect, including the elusive Zigic. Jungersen makes the point that hatred and dehumanization start at a humble and comprehensible level, ironically in an office devoted to the chronicling of genocidal atrocities. Even timid Anne-Lise ultimately realizes that “we all have it in us to be murderers and executioners and war criminals.”
Jungersen raises moral questions tactfully, without trivializing the issues.
Every generation needs its What Makes Sammy Run, its Floater, its tale of a young man trying to make it in the glamour biz of the moment. Heller’s hilarious first novel is that book for the 1990s, perhaps the most media-centric age to date. A glib self-promoter who invents a swanky continental background to hide his middle-class, outer-borough upbringing, Zachary Post is a rising editor at a glossy Manhattan magazine company called Versailles Publishing. Versailles—oh, let’s call it by its real name: CondÇ Nast—employs only tall, skinny, black-clad women (preferably English, or at least Euro schooled), publishes a group of virtually indistinguishable magazines called She, Her, and It, and lives for the buzz created by its backbiting, press-courting, power-lunching staff. Zachary’s lunches are going pretty well at Versailles until an even more ambitious—and decidedly less likable—editor, Mark Larkin, becomes his boss; suddenly Zachary’s stock falls with both management and the British-born editor (with a hyphenated name, natch) he’s been lusting after professionally as well as sexually. As Zachary bids to solidify his position at Versailles via a wonderfully funny series of adventures—a scheme to blackmail Mark with a supposedly incriminating audiotape; a trip to England to wow his putative girlfriend’s parents—Heller shows himself a brilliant social satirist not just of the magazine business but of human nature. What elevates this debut above the merely mean (and it is that, deliciously) is that Heller (a veteran of Vanity Fair, Details, Premiere, and Spy) has a heart and shows it, most notably in his depiction of a colleague driven mad by the competitive atmosphere. This character is just a slightly less hardy version of Zachary himself, and it’s clear that Zachary and Heller are grateful they—ve escaped his fate. A delightful, smart, twisted commentary on ambition, careerism, love, and modern life by the most likely newcomer since Nick Hornby to make you laugh out loud on a bus.
A darkly comic portrait of the Job from hell follows the vertiginous downward spiral of a failed academic who loses his wife, his career, his self-respect, and possibly even his sanity.
As jobs go, temping is about the worst. So for Paul Trilby, a once-promising literary theorist with a Ph.D. from a top-notch university up north, the Texas Department of General Services (affectionately known as TxDoGS) is nothing less than the ninth circle of hell. Paul lost his wife’s affection years ago after she found out—from her cat Charlotte—that he was having an affair with one of his students. This led him (in a roundabout kind of way) to kill the cat, lose tenure, move to Texas, and become a bum. Now he works as a “technical writer” (read: typist) at TxDoGS, pulling down $8 an hour and living in an old motel, where he’s haunted by Charlotte’s ghost. But, as bad as things are, Paul’s world is far from gray—in fact, his life seems to be turning more lurid by the minute. To begin with, the man in the cubicle next to Paul dies on the job while working overtime. Then, some strange Post-its asking “Are we not men?” begin to appear without explanation. In the men’s room, where Paul often goes for his morning nap, eerie noises emanate from the ceiling, and a trio of coworkers initiates Paul into an informal lunch club that begins to seem more and more like a secret society. The only sane thing in Paul’s life appears to be Callie, the autodidact from the mailroom who becomes his girlfriend and is about his only link to the real world. But can she save him?
By turns ominous, hilarious, and genuinely scary: Hynes (The Lecturer’s Tale, 2001, etc.) offers a highly original send-up of the most unnatural activity ever conceived by the human mind—work.
Sheer entertainment against a fabulous background, proving that late-blooming first-novelist Wolfe, a superobserver of the social scene (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers), has the right stuff for fiction.
Undertaken as a serial for Rolling Stone, his magnum opus hits the ball far, far, far out of the park. Son of Park Avenue wealth, Sherman McCoy at 35 is perhaps the greatest bond salesman on Wall Street, and eats only the upper crust. But millionaire Sherman's constant inner cry is that he is "hemorrhaging money." He's also a jerk, ripe for humiliation; and when his humiliation arrives, it is fearsome. Since this is also the story of The Law as it applies to rich and poor, especially to blacks and Hispanics of the Bronx, Wolfe has a field day familiarizing the reader with the politics and legal machinations that take place in the Bronx County Courthouse, a fortress wherein Sherman McCoy becomes known as the Great White Defendant. One evening, married Sherman picks up his $100-million mistress Maria at Kennedy Airport, gets lost bringing her back in his $48,000 Mercedes-Benz, is attacked by two blacks on a ramp in the Bronx. When Maria jumps behind the wheel, one black is hit by the car. Later, he lapses into a terminal coma, but not before giving his mother part of Sherman's license plate. This event is hyped absurdly by an alcoholic British reporter for the The City Light (read: Rupert Murdoch's New York Post), the mugger becomes an "honor student," and Sherman becomes the object of vile racist attacks mounted by a charlatan black minister. Chunk by chunk, Sherman loses every footing in his life but gains his manhood. Meanwhile, Wolfe triumphantly mounts scene after magnificent scene depicting the vanity of human endeavor, with every character measured by his shoes and suits or dresses, his income and expenses, and with his vain desires rising in smoke against settings that would make a Hollywood director's tongue hang out.
A junior assistantship to the editor of the world’s top fashion magazine (“The job a million girls would die for”) provides endless fodder for a one-note but on-the-money kiss-and-tell debut.
Andy, or, as her boss from hell calls her: “Ahn-dre-ah,” harbors dreams of writing for The New Yorker, but her luck runs out—or runs high, depending on your priorities—when her first job interview lands her at Runway magazine, beholden to Miranda Priestly, “solely responsible for anticipating her needs and accommodating them.” Intelligent, sarcastic and without a smidgen of interest in fashion, Andrea quickly learns the Runway culture, from the necessity of being tall, emaciated, slavish, and half-naked in winter to the perks of town cars, shopping bags filled with designer duds, and the promise of any job after one year of servitude. A few weeks of dealing with the insensitive, sadistic and imperious Miranda leave our heroine on the verge of abdicating, but before long she’s joining her colleagues in “the classic Runway Paranoid Turnaround . . . scrambling to negate whatever blasphemy is uttered” about the divine Miranda.” Outside of work, Andrea has a perfectly nice socially conscious boyfriend from her college days at Brown, a best-friend-slash-roommate with a drinking problem who’s getting her doctorate at Columbia, a loving family in Connecticut, and no time for any of them as she races to retrieve Miranda’s French bulldog puppy from the vet, hire a nanny for her children, make 12 trips in stiletto heels to Starbucks for her coffee in between sorting her dirty dry cleaning. It’s only a 14-hour day! Ultimately, of course, everything explodes, and in the end, of course, righteousness prevails.
Weisberger writes with humor and authority, but her plot circles like a whirlpool—and by the time Andrea’s ready to face some hard choices, it’s difficult to care. Her exhaustion is contagious.
(N.B: Weisberger, this season’s buzz of the town, was an assistant to Vogue editrix Anna Wintour—read: Miranda Priestly—giving this putative roman-à-clef an added splash of juice.)