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COMPANY by Max Barry Kirkus Star


by Max Barry

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 2006
ISBN: 0-385-51439-5
Publisher: Doubleday

A raucous black comedy about corporate management that’s tailor-made for anybody who’s ever gone to the office feeling like a lab rat.

When Stephen Jones, fresh out of college, arrives at the Seattle headquarters of Zephyr Holdings, he’s understandably eager to learn more about his new employer. Alas, Zephyr’s official mission statement (“to build and consolidate leadership positions in its chosen markets”) is no help, and his coworkers seem to spend more time investigating who stole a donut than actually working. In the first 70 pages, Barry (Jennifer Government, 2003, etc.) takes whacks at dysfunctional office culture, and the gags rarely rise above sitcom-level wackiness—one employee’s attempt to claim stupidity as a disability is taken seriously by the HR department, for example. But the book enters some sublimely Kafkaesque territory once Jones discovers his employer’s real purpose: Zephyr is, in fact, a training lab where new management theories are secretly tested on human subjects. If you change a project team’s goals every few hours, how long will it take them to break? What’s the best way to humiliate smokers and make them more productive? How do you threaten employees with layoffs while keeping up morale? Jones signs on for Project Alpha, under the wing of Eve Jantiss, a corporate functionary who’s as callous and cutthroat as they come. But once Zephyr requires whole departments to be consolidated or garroted, a disgusted Jones begins to sabotage Project Alpha and foment open revolt at the company. Much of the rhetoric in later chapters about how Zephyr workers are human beings, not fungible parts, would pack a stronger punch if we got to know the characters better—many of Jones’s coworkers are locked into simple subplots. But the author’s shrewd observations about corporate life still register.

Comic relief for any b-school grads (or Office Space fans) who’ve had their fill of Collins, Drucker and Peters.