Jones joins Zephyr as an enthusiastic employee, without even knowing what the company does. This doesn’t seem to be an odd thing at Zephyr, where Jones’ coworkers in the Training Sales department just accept that Zephyr is a ‘holdings’ company, and get on with their menial, perpetual tasks that often seem to have no point and no outcome.
Roger is concerned with who took his donut, and someone may even get fired over it. Holly gets through the day just so she can sweat out her exercise addiction in the corporate gym. Elizabeth falls in love with her customers, but not if they’re too easy or come on too strong. Freddy has been in the same position for five years and is thwarted in any attempt to get promoted.
It doesn’t take long for newbie Jones to realise there is something strange about Zephyr. No one has ever seen the CEO face to face, and the flirtatious receptionist Eve is never at her post, yet seems to earn more money than everybody else. His investigations take him to the forefront of the secrets behind bestselling business book The Omega Management System, which every manager carries, and into the secret labyrinthine depths of a controlling and soulless experiment.
I don’t want to give too much away about this little satirical gem. It’s a very easy and enjoyable read with romantic/ethical conflicts and plenty of corporate and personal intrigue. There were a few moments where characters disappeared that I had grown empathy for (but this may be a tool used by Barry to make us see the cruelty of the company), and a few needless descriptions of life outside the company, where the stiflingly contained world within would have sufficed. The characters are not exactly enlightening, but this is more a concept novel, and I think there should be more corporate satires about!
Gold moments (that are often frighteningly close to true situations) include the indecipherable company Mission Statement, and this exchange about why IT is on the ‘bottom’ floor:
Jones looks at the button panel. ‘What’s so bad about IT?’
‘Please,’ Freddy says. ‘Some of them don’t even wear suits.’
There are also innumerable references to outsourcing and company consolidation, and about rights at work. The Human Resources Department is like a nightmarish hall of mirrors with booming voices like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, while workers quiver like Tinman. There are references to the way business textbooks refer to employees as a ‘tribe’. The company intimidates people into working when they’re sick, embarrasses them for smoking, and finds other roundabout ways to discriminate in order to improve production time.
There are incredibly materialistic (and lonely) characters who look like soap stars and think they’re living in the ‘real world’ by ridding themselves of the worry of conscience.
There’s the big fat hopeful question of whether a company can be both profitable and democratic. Barry ultimately leaves you with a sweet taste in your mouth, not a bitter one, and the book is great entertainment. The fact that it might also simmer a little dissent behind some desks is a wonderful thing. Highly accessible fiction.
Max Barry’s website and really random blog.