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Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent – The Famous Five in the corporate world

December 10, 2019 9 comments

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent. (2018) French title: Le Club des Cinq part en séminaire. Translated and adapted by Anne-Laure Estèves.

I belong to a generation who fell in love with crime fiction by reading The Famous Five (in French, Le Club des Cinq), Nancy Drew (in French, Alice), Fantômette, a French series with a female super-hero, The Secret Seven (in French, Le Clan des Sept) and Les Six Compagnons, a French series set in Lyon. I remember devouring these books and requesting frequent trips to the library.

These are wonderful reading memories, books that led me to Agatha Christie and many other crime fiction writers.

So, when I saw Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, just before going to one of those myself, I couldn’t resist the impulse to discover how the Famous Five would deal with modern management techniques. It’s a small vintage publication that plays well on the nostalgia felt by readers like me. They replicated the original feel of the covers, the illustrations inside. The translation technique is the same as well: everything is adapted to the French setting, the theme song, the metro and train rides, the food. That’s what translators used to do and sometimes not only for children literature.

Our five friends Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timothy (respectively in French, François, Claude, Mick, Annie and Dagobert) work for the same firm –well, not Timmy, obviously—and are going on a strategy away day. They go to Normandy, in a remote farm and are welcome by consultants who are going to manage the various activities of the day. We found there all the common team building techniques that everyone working in the corporate world at a management position has experienced. The relaxation consultant, the blind-you-teammate-and-make-them-reach-point-A-to-point-B-without-bumping-into-objects, the post-its moments to note down ideas, the personality tests whose result will help you know who you are and help you communicate efficiently with colleagues and team members and the inevitable race in the woods to bring flags home.

All of it is described quickly and accurately as we see our childhood fictional friends navigate the corporate sea. It’s not the book of the year but it’s a nice journey-into-the past experience laced with a healthy dose of self-mockery. It reminds you that management techniques are useful but one needs to keep their critical mind and use them wisely.

Sad to be back in the office after the holidays? Have a good laugh with Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

September 4, 2016 15 comments

Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. (2006) Not available in French. Translation tragedy. 

When I woke up that Sunday after getting fired Marlene was dead. I was in a salty bed and two detectives were staring down at me. Three hours later I was jerking off in a police station bathroom. It was not the resurrection I’d been hoping for.

Neilan_ApathyIsn’t that a promising setting? Meet Shane a professional drifter who moves around a lot, shies away from responsibilities and roots. He tries to fly under the radar but this time he failed. He’s in custody because a woman, Marlene, is dead and he’s the police’s favorite suspect. He starts recalling the flow of events that brought him there and we’re introduced to a menagerie of characters: Doug, the dentist who faints on his patients while they’re on his chair. Marlene, his deaf assistant who loves karaoke. Gwen who likes rough sex with her boyfriends. The janitor’s wife who needs sex services. The janitor, who needs his wife to be serviced.

And Shane finds himself mixed in their lives. He’s Doug’s patient and befriends Marlene on his frequent trips to the dentist. A former college rugby player, Gwen picks him as a boyfriend and he lets himself be tackled in her rounds of TLC.

“Oh my god, Shane!” she said, and hit me with an open field tackle of a hug that lifted me off my stool and cracked two of my ribs. I saw her coming at the last second and braced myself. Otherwise I would’ve been paralyzed for life.

Since he can’t pay his full rent, the janitor in his apartment complex asks him into shag his wife every Tuesday. Shane doesn’t enjoy it but he complies, gets his a discount on his rent and comments with a deadpan sense of humor.

Still, after a few Tuesdays, just from sheer repetition, the sex had marginally improved. We were still dead fish being swung by an off duty clown, but we weren’t just any kind of fish. And even if we weren’t two majestic salmon, glistening in the sun as we leaped up a waterfall into the mouth of a huge fucking grizzly bear, we were at least tuna. Someone, somewhere would be glad to catch and eat us.

Under Gwen’s recommendation, Shane starts as a temp among the support staff in the insurance company she works for, Panopticon Insurance. Now have you noticed? If a character must have a boring job, they’re either an accountant or work for an insurance company. Imagine what a writer would do with an accountant working for an insurer. Perhaps nothing because their character would be in a boredom-induced coma. Or it would be the ultimate modernist novel. Stream of unconsciousness. Zzzzzzz.

Anyway, back to Shane and his temp job at Panopticon because that’s the funniest part of the novel. His job is to alphabetize contracts but soon he specializes in what we call in French “vertical filing” ie, putting things straight into the trash. So our Shane has a lot of time on his hands and he divides it between making miniature gallows with paper clips and perfecting the art of sleeping in the restrooms.

It was early on, before I knew the physiology of sleeping on a toilet bowl and its effects, and what I needed to do to counteract them: how long to hold on to the quadriplegic bars before trying to walk on my own, how to maximize my momentum without tripping over my dead legs, how to use my lack of balance to my advantage, which I never really figured out. It was all a matter of timing and rhythm, like tap dancing. In those first few days I knew how to shuffle ball step, but I was wearing the wrong shoes.

He makes cutting remarks on Panopticon, the cubicles, the team’s manager Andrew, his colleagues and makes fun of corporate life in general and management techniques in particular.

The boss’s name was Andrew, but he didn’t like the term boss. He referred to himself as the team facilitator.

It is absolutely hilarious, especially when Andrew organizes a “cube warming” party when their department gets a brand new cubicle or when Shane describes Inspiration Alley, the row between the cubicles. It’s covered with inspirational quotes from great leaders to uplift team spirit. As Shane says

If Tolstoy were alive today and working as a temp at Panopticon Insurance, he’d say that all insurance companies are the same, then throw himself through an eighteenth-story window and plunge to his death in a hail of glass and shattered dignity. I worked on the eighteenth floor, but the windows were too thick.

Shane’s professional wanker. Apathy is his way-of-life, an art-of-life, even. It’s his driving force and nothing can sway him. He’s completely whacked and he’s one of these characters totally oblivious that something’s seriously wrong with them. But you get to know his brand of crazy around a comment here and there.

He looked at me the way my mom did the time she caught me officiating the wedding of Mr. Potato Head and He-Man. I had just said, “You may kiss the bride,” and when I looked up she was standing in the doorway. I was fourteen years old, and I was not wearing any pants.

He’s fucked-up and can’t help stealing saltshakers wherever he goes:

I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this.

(Btw, if you ever want to get rid of a French guest: serve them beef jerky with root beer and Jello as a dessert. They’ll run away quickly.)

Being in Shane’s head is fun. He might be totally immature and crazy but he makes spot on observations about humans. I chuckled, laughed out loud at his outrageous comments. The scenes in Doug’s office are hilarious. The corporate part put me in stitches. The story comes together in the end, the reader gets the whole picture and sees how fate framed Shane.

I loved everything in Apathy and Other Small Victories. The crazy plot. The amazing characters. Neilan’s punchy style and impeccable sense of humor. It’s going to be on my best-of-the-year list, I’m sure.

I read this thanks to Guy, who picked it after Max Barry mentioned it as a fantastic read. Check out Guy’s review here. Highly recommended in case of depressing weather, hard times at work, dire need of a good laugh.

 

Machine Man by Max Barry

June 1, 2015 19 comments

Machine Man by Max Barry (2011) Not available in French.

Barry_machine_manOur Book club decided to read Machine Man by Max Barry for this month of May. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we had five public holidays in May which was good for escapades on long weekends but terrible for work since things kept piling up in our absence. I’m under the impression I jumped from April to June in one breath. Anyway.

Machine Man is a science-fiction / dystopian novel, put it in the box you prefer. Scientist Charles Neumann works for an innovative company, Better Future. He’s a pure scientist who believes in science as long as it’s not psychology, anthropology, etc. His specialty is mechanical engineering. He manages a lab in charge of finding new inventions that managers and marketing people sell or not. He’s not much of a manager and his social skills are almost inexistent. He’s never had a girlfriend; he’s not interested in socializing and he’s not really open to anything but science.

One day, he has an accident at work and his leg must be amputated. He wakes up in the hospital to face his new him. He has a rather detached attitude to the problem.

Presumably if I disconnected the saline drip, I would deflate to a husk. I was a junior high physics problem. If Charles Neumann is a human being with volume 80 liters, oozing bodily fluid at the rate of 0.5 liters per minute, how often must we replace his 400-milliliter saline bags? I felt I should have been more sophisticated than that.

That’s Charlie Neumann in a nutshell. Descartes would have been his kindred spirit: he thinks of the body as a machine. And Charlie loves machines. He loves the idea of improving machines. When he meets Lola, who works at the hospital as a prosthetist, he’s underwhelmed by the prosthesis she can show him. He’s entitled to the best as Better Future is so afraid to have a trial that they are willing to pay for everything. Charlie resumes work and decides to improve his prosthesis. He creates new legs, ones designed for performance and not to look normal. His leg is ugly but functional and in his opinion, much better than his former biological leg. And then he thinks that it’s a disadvantage to have a poor biological leg and a great mechanical leg. Since same causes produce the same effects, he reproduces the circumstances of his first accident to have his other leg removed.

That’s when Better Future steps up their game. They realise the potential of money in these improved body parts. They give Charlie and his team carte blanche to create products to enhance the human body.

Follows a high-paced story with lots of twists and turns about inventing new parts, testing them before selling them and opening a brand new market of scientifically enhanced body parts. Charlie and his team are like children in a candy store. They have access to all the spare parts and materials they want. They’re free to invent whatever they want without being bothered by ethics at all since their boss’s opinion is:

Don’t pass moral judgment because cause produced effect. We’re biological machines. We have chemically driven urges. You inject a nun with a particular chemical cocktail, she’s going to start swinging punches. It’s a fact.

With that kind of attitude, you can excuse everything. Just as I was reading Machine Man, I listened to a radio program about Transhumanism and the ethical questions raised by new technological possibilities for our bodies. It’s not a theory I’m familiar with but it was interesting to hear about it right when I was reading Barry.

And this is where Machine Man is flawed. It’s a novel with a fantastic potential. It could be to Descartes’s vision of the body as a machine what Candide is to Leibnitz. A philosophical tale, funny but deep. Machine Man raises fascinating questions. Do we develop these technologies enhancing the human body? Do we provide them only to disabled people to improve their everyday life or do we consider that anybody should decide what to do with their body and if they want to cut their leg to have a mechanical one, who are we to intervene? Who’s in charge of the related ethical challenges? Rabelais said Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme. (Science without conscience will ruin the soul)

Where does Machine Man stand in that respect? The answer is Nowhere, unfortunately.

I have already read three books by Max Barry: Company, a hilarious and yet spot-on novel about corporate crap, Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel where brands have taken all the power in the world and Syrup, a fast-paced novel about a marketing genius who invented a new soda. All three managed to combine a high speed, page-turning plot with deep thoughts about the corporate and marketing worlds. I loved the three so I was looking forward to reading Machine Man.

I was so frustrated by it. It lacked depth, stayed on the surface of things. It’s still a fun read but I wanted more. I expected more from Max Barry. I wanted some thoughts about how Better Future captures science for its own profit. I wanted more thoughts about the ethical debate related to what Charlie was doing. I also thought he was too much of a caricature. Nerdy, low social skills, wary of psychology…scientists are more than that.

For another take on Machine Man, read Guy’s post here.

PS: If you work in the corporate world, have a good laugh and read Company.

A glimpse in the world of poor workers in America

December 29, 2013 33 comments

A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison. 2002. French title: Tribulations d’un précaire.

In the last ten years, I’ve had forty-two jobs in six states. I’ve quit thirty of them, been fired from nine, and as for the other three, the line was a little blurry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, you just know it wouldn’t be right for you to show up anymore.

I have become, without realizing it, an itinerant worker, a modern-day Tom Joad. There are differences, though. If you asked Tom Joad what he did for a living, he would say, “I’m a farmworker.” Me, I have no idea. The other difference is that Tom Joad didn’t blow $40,000 getting an English degree.

And the more I travel and look around for work, the more I realize that I am not alone. There are thousands of itinerant workers out there, many of them wearing business suits, many doing construction, many waiting tables or cooking in your favorite restaurants. They are the people who were laid off from companies that promised them a lifetime of security and then changed their minds, the people who walked out of commencement with a $40,000 fly swatter in their hands and got rejected from twenty interviews in a row, then gave up. They’re the people who thought, I’ll just take this temporary assignment/bartending job/parking lot attendant position/pizza delivery boy job until something better comes up, but something better never does, and life becomes a daily chore of dragging yourself into work and waiting for a paycheck, which you can barely use to survice. Then you listen in fear for the sound of a cracking in your knee, which means a $5,000 medical bill, or a grinding in your car’s engine, which means a $2,000 mechanic’s bill, and you know then that it’s all over, you lose. New car loans, health insurance, and mortgages are out of the question. Wives and children are unimaginable. It’s surviving, but surviving sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama. It’s scrapping by.

Levison_FrenchI know it’s a long quote but it’s the perfect introduction to Ian Levison’s Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I picked this book on a whim in my favorite bookstore. They know what they put on the shelves and it’s even recommended by Le Monde and La Tribune. It is a terrifying journey into the working conditions in contemporary America. The language of the quote gives away the century the book was written in otherwise, you could think it was an excerpt from The Odd Women by Gissing. It reminded me of Mr Bullivant who would like a wife but doesn’t earn enough money to settle down. The big difference now is that women can work as well, at least if there is appropriate and affordable day care for children.

This is a memoir where Levison relates his experiences as a worker. He has a degree in English but can’t find a job in his field. He describes his job applications, and the various experiences he has in small jobs in different states.

The longest section of the book is dedicated to his experience in Alaska where he works on ships and with fish. Due to its harsh climate and its appalling Sarah, I can’t say Alaska was on my list of the 1001 places to see before I die. After reading about Levison’s working conditions there, it’s almost an act of rebellion to avoid the place. If I ever want to try on extreme cold living conditions, I’ll stick to Quebec where they even speak French with a lovely accent and charming words. Levison is first hired on a ship to prepare crabs to be exported to Japan. They work in shifts of 16 hours, sleep in bunk in a room with at least 10cm of water on the floor and are basically wet all the time. It’s cold and wet, so it’s not the same conditions as in California but it still reminded me of Bandini’s time in the can factory in The Road to Los Angeles. Fante also did odd jobs and I’m sure that Bandini’s experience stems from his own. It’s depressing to write that Levison’s working conditions bring me back to novels from the late 19th century and pre-WWII 20th century.

All along the book, details about the lack of laws to protect workers shocked me. I knew that regulations are less strict than in France, I hear enough of foreigners complaining about French working laws. I never thought it was that different. I suppose there’s a big difference between people working in large corporations and people working in shops and small companies. The problem lays in what the law imposes as minimum rights. You don’t live well in France with the minimum wages and the one million of persons who applied to the Restaurants du Coeur (charity like Salvation Army) won’t deny it. Young people have trouble finding a steady job. At work we’ve had several maternity leaves in a row and we repeatedly hired the same young woman as a replacement. We were happy to have her again each time because she wasgood but we were sorry for her that she was still on the job market. But still, there are minimum rules and of course, free health care and financial help for rent.

levison_EnglishI don’t want to play down Levison’s suffering but I also have mixed feelings about this book. Part of me is outraged by the working conditions Iain Levison encountered in his various jobs and I agree with him that this is more surviving than living. Part of me is also irritated by his behavior. I have nothing about not accepting the rules of the society we live in. I totally respect alternative ways of living as long as people don’t complain that the outside world doesn’t adjust to their vision of life. Yes you have to accept corporate crap when you work for a company. Granted, there seem to be more corporate crap in the US than in France. By corporate crap I mean things like the employee of the month, the smiling obligation or whichever upbeat behavior is covered by client satisfaction or management concepts.

And what job did he expect when he started his English degree? If you don’t want to be a teacher or work in the academic world (where the number of positions is limited), what can you do? Be a PA? Find a job where the company will invest on training you? Sorry if what I write seems a bit provocative, but there are so many graduates out there with a degree that leads to no concrete jobs. I see some at work. When you start a university degree, don’t you need to be a bit practical? If I had picked the subjects I enjoyed most in high-school, I’d be a history or English graduate now. And then what? I can’t be a teacher, I don’t have the patience. How could I apply to jobs that require specific technical skills beside writing without spelling and grammar mistakes?

Our working world is far from perfect and there is no excuse for what Iain Levison describes: impossible cadences for truck drivers, total disrespect for the safety of workers and no control of companies that employ workers in difficult conditions. Levison isn’t afraid to work hard as his various experiences show it. It’s really good that he stood up and talked for the army of poor workers who have no voice. It’s 10 years later now and I hope things turned out well for him, beside his writing career. The book is written in a journalistic tone with a wry sense of humor, it’s easy to read and enlightening.

PS: I have a question. Somewhere in the book, Levison mentions that the working week starts on Sundays. I had already seen on American calendars that the week starts on Sundays instead of Mondays like in here. My question is why? According to the Bible, God made the world in six days and had a rest on the seventh day. I suppose it explains why the last day of the week is Sunday for us. Why is it different in America?

Maybe some of you have forgotten what companies really do. So let me remind you: they make as much money as possible.

July 12, 2013 21 comments

Jennifer Government by Max Barry, 2003. French title: Jennifer Gouvernement.

“A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government”  Thomas Jefferson, 1801.

Barry_Jennifer_GovernmentThis quote from Jefferson is at the beginning of Jennifer Government. What did Max Barry do with such a statement? He took it LITERALLY. So we’re in a 21st century imaginary world where the Earth is divided in three zones, seen from an American point of view: the United States Federated Blocs (USA/Australia/UK/Russia/South America), the Non-United States Federated Blocs (Europe/China) and the Fragmented Markets (Africa/Middle East). The whole novel is set in the US Federated Blocs. Here, the government has no money because taxes were abolished, market laws rule everything and there aren’t any regulations unless you do something very illegal such as killing someone. It’s full employment and people’s surname is the name of the company they work for.

It all starts in America and ends up with a butterfly effect coming from the corporate world. Hack Nike, a merchandising officer, is thirsty and the water fountain on his floor is empty. He goes downstairs to catch a bit of water and stumbles upon John Nike, Guerilla Marketing VP and John Nike, Guerilla Marketing Operative. The John Nikes have decided of a new marketing plan to better sell the Mercury, their new luxury sneaker. They’ve already made it scarce on the market to increase its value and make people want to have a pair at any cost. Now, they want to move their plan to the next level. They’re about to drop thousands of pairs in shops and want to kill 10 customers at random once they have purchased Mercuries to make it look as if people are ready to kill to have these sneakers. They just need someone to do the job now. Hack is there and they lure him into thinking they promote him from merchandising to a great marketing if he just signs this contract written in small letters. Hack signs it without reading it and then learns what he has to do: he’s in charge of picking and killing the ten victims. When he enquires about the legality of the said task, here is the answer he gets from the two Johns:

“He wants to know if it’s illegal,” the other John said, amused. “You’re a funny guy Hack. Yes, it’s illegal, killing people without their consent, that’s very illegal.”

Vice President John said, “But the question is: what does it cost? Even if we get found out, we burn a few million on legal fees, we get fined a few million more…bottom-line, we’re still way out in front”

That’s pretty much the tone of the book. Hack doesn’t have the guts to kill 10 people himself but can’t get out of the job. That’s when things become global: he goes to the police to subcontract them the job. And the police subcontract it to the NRA. The killing is done and several people get involved in the plot. Jennifer Government is the government agent who was sent on the premises of the killing. She has a personal reason to track down John Nike and she’s really after him. Buy Mitsui attempts to rescue a girl from the killing but can’t because he doesn’t give his credit card number fast enough to 911 and they don’t send an ambulance without upfront payment. Billy is accidentally enrolled by the NRA and is caught up in their net of criminal doings. But more importantly, the world is divided into two major customer programs, Team Alliance and US Alliance. Each program elects a company in its field to be part of the program so Team Alliance is basically composed of companies in direct competition with the ones of US Alliance. The NRA and Nike are with US Alliance; the Police is with Team Alliance. Things escalate to a real war between the two majors networks and it’s up to you to discover what happens next.

I had a LOT of a fun reading this book. It’s dystopian fiction spiced up with a devilish sense of humour. The police? They broadcast ads to attract clients and their theme song is Every Breath You Take. Companies? Only interested in the bottom line of their P&L. Employees? Sheep that would give up anything for a discount and buy anything that is marketed as a “must have”. Schools? Sponsored by corporations which work on their programs and give toys, furniture and stationery. The Government? No taxes, no budget, they have to raise money from the families of the victims to start an investigation. Hear Calvin Governement when the news of the killing comes to him:

“Fourteen dead. At least eight were contract killings, all from families of limited means. At this stage it looks like the victims were selected for low incomes. I hate to say it, but it’s going to be tough to get budget on this one.”

It’s not real but it’s so close. Only money matters. And market shares. John Nike is the villain but he only gets his way because everybody is ready to give up part of their freedom of movement, of speech or of thinking for a bargain.

Being French and reading this is even funnier as France is mentioned in the book as a comparison to what America and its affiliated countries have become. I have to say that the quote by Jefferson shocked me. As a French, this is totally foreign to my DNA. I will never think that accepting inequalities and not sharing wealth through taxes or welfare is a good thing. Never ever. That’s why I’ll never understand how rich America can be a country without free health care or affordable universities. But enough of the heavy.

As an anecdote, I’ve learned a new expression. “Gregory was talking to a couple of big US Alliance cheeses, including Alfonse, the CEO”. I didn’t know what a big cheese is. Translated literally, I can’t say it sounds really positive in French. But the corresponding French expression (un gros bonnet, a big hat) may not sound too grand in English either. Anway.

Jennifer Government is written like a thought-provoking action movie. It’s a page turner, it’s fun, upbeat and incredibly sarcastic. I have a girly crush on writer Max Barry. I’ve already read Company and Syrup and I loved them too. I wish he came with me to the office and spent a few months in the French corporate world. Then he would write a killing novel featuring moronic unionists with undeserved power, unworkable regulations voted with the best intentions by MPs who have never set a foot in a company and puzzled foreigners wondering how things can still work despite all these complexity and obstacles. Come Max, I’ll sneak you in as my intern and you’ll work undercover.

Son of a pitch

March 20, 2012 10 comments

99 Francs by Frédéric Beigbeder 2000. British translation: £9.99

This is my second Frédéric Beigbeder and like the first one, I didn’t buy it. I read Un Roman Français last year, remember, it was part of my Not A Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge. It was better than expected. I found 99 Francs in the archive room at work. It laid abandoned on a shelf and the pull was too strong, I couldn’t leave the poor book alone, it howled for a home. OK, if it had been a SAS, I would have thought it was better it kept company to all these boxes of invoices. But it wasn’t, so I brought it home.

Frédéric Beigbeder was born in 1965 in a bourgeois family and used to work as an advertising executive before becoming a writer, among other things. Once he was arrested because he had cocaine on him. 99 Francs is the story of Octave, a thirtysomething advertising executive who loathes his job and sniffs cocaine. Now you understand why I wrote the biographical elements, I who never cares about a writer’s life.

Octave has the same name than Musset’s character in The Confession of a Child of the Century. And indeed it’s not a coincidence at all. So Octave is bored. Octave is heartbroken because his lover left him. Octave wallows in debauchery. Octave thinks about how shallow the world is, how corrupted and money driven it is. And Octave shows us what happens behind the curtains in the advertising world.

Honestly, I didn’t like it although there are definitely some good things in this book, especially at the beginning. I didn’t enjoy it for several reasons. First, I’m a business school graduate, I suffered during marketing classes and only Max Barry could make something entertaining with that. Second, the bits about corporate world reminded me of where I don’t want to work ; it was easy to picture the meetings with they client Madone. Third, binge drinking, cocaine, raw sex and partying are more glamorous when they’re set in Manhattan and written by Jay McInerney. What can I say? The best marketers are American, they even invented Santa Claus. Plus, when you’re not a native, things sound less silly when they are in English. Song lyrics are the perfect example.

Octave is fed up with his job, he questions its worth and points out that it helps money governing the world, making people only wanting to buy new things instead of focusing on the real values. Haven’t we heard it all before? Beigbeder rebels like a bourgeois kid who wants to bother their father, yelling with small fists clenched in designer jeans. The parallel with Musset could sound fake but didn’t I see a parallel between Musset’s generation and mine when I read Confession of A Child of the Century? I can’t criticize Beigbeder for it, for I could feel the connection too.

The structure is original, each chapter is written in a different personal pronoun. It starts with I and finishes with you (plural). The point of view shifts and between each chapter, there’s a mini-chapter written like a commercial break. Clever.

If someone still wants to read it and if you’re not French, don’t read it in French. You wouldn’t understand it. This book doesn’t need a translation, it needs a transcription. It’s full of references to well-known commercials; you need to see the images conveyed by the slogans, otherwise you’re missing the fun and Octave’s point.

After re-reading my review, I notice that I have a lot of links to other posts in it, more than the usual. It shows how it echoed with other books, this novel is indeed a child of its century.

PS : Something else about this book. In his interviews about Claustria, Régis Jauffret makes a comparison between watching TV and the cavern in Plato’s essay. Well, dear M. Jauffret, Frédéric Beigbeder wrote this comparison before and it’s in 99 Francs.

Marketing’s first golden rule: Perception is reality

August 7, 2011 15 comments

Syrup by Maxx Barry. 1999. French title: Soda & Cie

Marketing (or mktg, which is what you write when you’re taking lectures notes at two hundred words per minute) is the biggest industry in the world, and it’s invisible. It’s the planet’s largest religion, but the billions who worship it don’t know it. It’s vast, insidious and completely corrupt.

Marketing is like LA. It’s like a gorgeous, brainless model in LA. A gorgeous, brainless model on cocaine having sex drinking Perrier in LA. That’s the best way I know to describe it.

 Michael George Holloway a young marketing graduate from Iowa wants to get rich and famous. First actions to reach the goal: move in LA and market your name. That’s how he ends up sharing an apartment with Sneaky Pete in LA and change his name into Scat.

Scat wakes up with a great idea: a new cola named FUKK. He doesn’t know what to do with his great idea, so he shares about it with Sneaky Pete who happens to know the New Products Manager of Coke, 6. Sneaky Pete has him an appointment with 6, who loves the idea. The board of Coke wants to buy the trademark and just then, Scat realises he doesn’t have a pattern on the name. When he wants to register it, he learns that Sneaky Pete has done it before. From then on, he will team up with 6 and it will be a deathly business war with Sneaky Pete. I won’t tell more, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s pleasure.

Syrup is a perfect read for commuters unless you’re too self-conscious to laugh out loud in a train carriage. Because you will laugh. It’s made of short scenes of a page or half a page. Each chapter is illustrated with a bar code and there are soda bubbles between sub-chapters. Original. Upbeat. Refreshing. Marketing case studies are inserted in the text, to recall the reader where he is:

mktg case study #6: mktg cigarettes

For a product that kills its customers, this is pretty easy. For one thing, you only need to convince people to start buying. But the best part is that you get to defend the act of selling a product your customers can’t stop buying by claiming they have freedom of choice. Before each marketing campaign, practice the line: “It is not the policy of our company to dictate the lifestyle of our customers”

As a business school graduate, I’ve had my fair share of marketing classes even if I majored in business law. I remember those case studies – about cheese and champagne, yes, that’s French business schools… So Maxx Bary’s novel certainly rang a bell.

 Syrup is a satire of course but it points out real ways of working in nowadays companies. The SMT, the senior team management is a “dozen colleagues in pants and ties (no jackets, no women)” How true. In France they think about imposing quotas for women in boards to try to break the glass ceiling. He also talks about “dick-measuring contests” among the SMT, and I usually entertain my colleagues by pointing out the “concours de quéquette” when I see one. Really frequent. Ends up with decisions not made through a logical decision making process but through a perception of who won the dick-measuring contest. Passages about women in companies are rather accurate. Being a woman executive can be a pain when you get pregnant. As Scat points out, A pregnant woman has about as much chance of being given control of a top project as a drunk; they’re viewed as equally reliable. How true (bis) That’s the paradox. Companies want you most between 25 and 40, just when you have babies. But they’re also very happy to have new customers to consume their products. Who’s going to make them if we can’t get pregnant, uh?

All in all, I thought his description of companies’ politics exaggerated but with a real hint of truth.

 Scat’s choice of a name is a good one. Like scat in jazz, he’s always improvising in marketing. He’s the creative part of the team while 6 is the managing, strategy one. He’s always flabbergasted by how far the internal competition of a company can go. He’s naïve but not that bad at negotiating. He can’t really lie, he has no insight of political forces among the SMT or the manoeuvres Sneaky Pete puts into place to make them lose. There are no holds barred. 6 is the caricature of the steely woman executive who has built defensive walls to survive in her macho environment. She first declares she’s a lesbian to cut off men’s temptation to seduce her. She’s skilled in politics and organizing but has no creativity. She can’t survive without Scat and Scat can’t survive without her.

Like in Company, Syrup is an evidence of globalization. Company is the globalization of management methods. Syrup is the globalization of marketing methods. And just like Coke is an international symbol of marketing, McDonald’s is an international symbol of low quality job: It’s so great to know that after you’ve sucked me dry, you still think I can pick up a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s. In France too, to end up at McDonald’s for a regular job – not as a student job – is seen as a failure. Globalization of methods, globalization of outcome.

I have to say I like the voice of this writer, I think he’s a decent guy – or does he market himself as such? We are from the same generation. He’s obviously a feminist, he has a non-sexist way of describing relationships, and his male characters are the opposite of the testosterone man obsessed by tits and bottoms. Have a look at his website and particularly at his blog entry entitled Dogs and Smurfs if you want to know more. Syrup is currently being filmed. Max Barry wrote posts about the first days of shooting and he sounded very much as enthralled as Scat when he first goes to Coke or visit film locations.

After the 2008 financial crisis, I’d moderate my opening quote. Yes, marketing has a huge power on our lives. It will make you prefer one brand of cereal over another. But let Finance guys unleash their creativity and you get creative accounting, window-dressing, junk bonds, hedge funds, Fannie Mae and a major financial crisis that shatters the entire planet when markets and bankers realise that in that world, Perception CANNOT BE reality.

Who took the donut from the donut jar?

May 12, 2011 25 comments

Company by Max Barry. 2006.

MONDAY MORNING and there’s one less donut than there should be. Keen observers note the reduced mass straightaway but stay silent, because saying, “Hey, is that only seven donuts?” would betray their donut experience. It’s not great for your career to be known as the person who can spot the difference between seven and eight donuts at a glance. Everyone studiously avoids mentioning the missing donut until Roger turns up and sees the empty plate.

These are the opening lines of Company by Max Barry. I was already laughing. Four lines that catch the essence of office life, made of implicit social rules and of time wasted on details that have nothing to do with actual work. And that donut is important for our story. After the donut scene, Barry takes us to the reception area where Jones is waiting for Roger to pick him up at the reception desk.

Sitting there with his hands in his lap is young, fresh-faced Stephen Jones. His eyes are bright. His suit glows. His sandy-brown hair contains so much styling mousse it’s a fire risk, and his shoes are black mirrors. This is his first day.

I so imagined  Jones, the young business-school graduate who’s learnt management guide books by heart and is eager to jump into the real world at last. He’s killing time reading the company’s marketing brochures. He’s been hired to the Sales Training Department of Zephyr Holdings as Roger’s assistant. The Sales Training Department is composed of a manager, Sydney, her PA Megan, three sales representatives (Roger, Elizabeth and Wendell) and three sales assistants (Jones, Holly and Freddy). He’s already pining for Eve Jantiss the gorgeous receptionist.

After a few days, Jones realizes that the Sales Training Department is only selling to internal customers. When he asks, nobody is able to tell him what Zephyr Holdings really does and who are its real clients. Jones doesn’t accept this and is determined to find out the real purpose of Zephyr Holdings. He wouldn’t want to work for an arm maker or a porn company, he needs to ensure the company he works for is ethically acceptable. With the boldness of youth, he forces the doors of the CEO to understand what Zephyr Holdings is actually doing. He thus becomes a team member of the secret Senior Management of Zephyr Holdings and learns the real aim of the company. How will Jones cope with the news and work into that team?

The first third of the book relates Jones’s time at Zephyr before he discovers its aim and become a part of the secret management. In that part, we discover Zephyr, its social codes, its written or non-written rules. I really laughed a lot, seeing how close to real life it was. Cost control is pushed so far that it becomes inefficient and creates absurd behaviours. Employees work in open floors supposedly enforcing productivity (called “cubicle farm” by Max Barry, a good image, I thought). Comments are spot on, such as for sales representative who have “six-figure salaries, seven-figure quotas, and single-digit golf handicaps.” or when he calls outsourcing ” the nuclear bomb of Human Resources’ arsenal”. Many anecdotes felt real: the network falls, promotions come from political skills and not actual competence, managers give work at the last minute, creating stress.

At that time, I started to think of Company as a dystopian novel, like Fahrenheit 451. Zephyr Holdings is another world, with a physical presence and a designated area through its building:

The Zephyr Holdings building sits nestled among the skyscrapers of Seattle’s Madison Street like a big, gray brick. It is bereft of distinguishing features. You could argue that it has a certain neutral, understated charm, but only if you are willing to apply the same logic to prisons and 1970s Volvos. It is a building designed by committee: all they have been able to agree on is that it should be rectangular, have windows, and not fall over.

Zephyr is the new working world. The old world is the company before flexible jobs, a time older employees remember and young employees think of as real as a lost paradise. Zephyr is a country with its own logic and its way to standardize people and take away their freedom and their free will. The Company is named after a wind. Is it innocent? I don’t think so. Every Zephyr’s employee should be able to see which way the wind blows or feel the wind change. In French, “faire beaucoup de vent” (literally “to make a lot of wind”) means “to make a lot of noise” in the sense of speaking a lot but not acting. “C’est du vent” (Literally, “it’s wind”) also means “it’s hot air”, in the sense of an empty posturing. All these expression apply to Zephyr Holdings whose name is also really ironic when you think that a zephyr is a warm, agreeable and gentle wind. North Wind would have been better.

The Sales Training Department is a sample of common people met at work. The manager Sydney is petty and driven by ambition.

How she became manager remains a mystery. But there are only two possibilities. One is that Senior Management mistook her tirades for drive and a commitment to excellence. The other is that they knew Sydney was a paranoid psychopath, and that’s exactly the kind of person they want in management.

Freddy, Holly, Megan represent the silent majority who follow through, tries to adapt and cope with the environment but however tries not to hurt anyone. They have a sheep-ish and thus sheepish behaviour. Elizabeth is a promoter and a believer, she “falls in love with her clients”. Roger is a promoter but he’s an opportunist and slightly unbalanced. “Roger is a powerful, confident, good-looking man kept awake at nights by the heart-gripping fear that other people don’t think he is powerful, confident, and good-looking.” He’s dangerous as he thinks he deserves to be promoted and as the end justifies the means in his eyes. Roger takes the missing donut affair seriously.

Jones is the rebel who questions the system. He’s human and needs to understand what he does. He sees his co-workers as persons and not as positions. He’s brave enough to fight. He’s the hero who won’t accept the situation and lead changes. He has strong values and doesn’t want to compromise. Ethics at work is important to him. When Jones’s ethics is shattered, he’d like to leave but stays, rationalizing his decision. As we all do when we don’t exactly agree with a task, we think that if we don’t do it, someone else will. And that someone could have less moral concern than us. So we conclude we’d better stay.

At Zephyr Holdings, Senior Management is nowhere to be seen but is always to be heard via voicemails, like robots or a disembodied power who anonymously controls their employees’ lives. They govern the company as dictators. They can decide to fire anyone at any time: they have the power to kill someone professionally. They spread fear and employees comply to any rule, accept any rationalization. On paper, Zephyr is cautious not to do anything illegal. But work regulations are twisted in such a way that what should have been a protection for employees becomes a weapon for management. For example, they use drug test to discover pregnant women. The code to prevent sexual harassment is such that innocent office romances are impossible. HR are the armed arm of Senior Management. They apply mechanically the decisions without blinking.

All this made me think of a parallel world and of dystopian novels’ codes. Hardboiled also came to my mind when I thought of the relationship between Jones and Eve Jantiss. He has everything of the PI with his own moral code, who won’t change but doesn’t mind bending the rules to a certain point if need be. He’s ready to have dirty hands for his cause. Eve Jantiss is the typical femme fatale of noir crime fiction. She’s tempting Jones, has no conscience and is venal. A lethal combination for our hero.

The conclusion of the novel could be a plea for better working conditions and more ethics in the treatment of workers.

We spend half our waking lives here. We know it better than anyone. We care about it more than anyone. That’s what people do, Blake, when you put them in a workplace: they get emotionally involved. We’re not inputs. We’re not machines.

We’re not headcounts, we’re human beings. The “it’s not personal, it’s business” slogan is a way to wipe away the guilt born from inhuman decisions.

I loved this book. I think it is masterly crafted. Max Barry manages to play with the codes of SF (not that I’m an expert in that field) and with the codes of hardboiled. However his Company felt awfully real. It’s funny and thought-provoking. Brilliant. Guy recommended Company to me when I read Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan. You can find his review here. I’m glad I read the two books almost at the same time. If Underground Time shows how a multi-national firm can destroy a strong person, Company shows how the destruction machine works. The two books are complementary as they describe the same reality but from a different perspective. I really recommend to read them together, 1 + 1 = 3 in that case.

PS: I’m so sorry that an Australian writer can describe office life in France in a book that is set in America. That’s called the “globalization of management techniques and financial doctrines”

Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

April 18, 2011 36 comments

Les Heures souterraines by Delphine de Vigan. Translated into English by Underground Time.

Paris, May 20th, 2009. Mathilde, 40, wakes up at 4am and knows she won’t sleep again. Her three children are peacefully sleeping and she will turn in her head once again the events that brought her there. Today is a special day: a fortune teller has predicted that she will meet a man on that day. Mathilde ironically states that she’s now low enough to trust a fortune teller.

Same day, same hour. Thibault, 43, wakes up in a hotel room, looks at his sleeping lover Lila. They spent the week-end together, they’ve made love and she said “thank you”. After that simple and dreadful “thank you”, Thibault abruptly decides to face the truth and accept that she doesn’t love him and will never love him. He knows the only way left is to break up with her today. Sitting in the bleak bathroom of their hotel room, he wonders if he’ll be strong enough to do it.

Mathilde is a senior executive in the marketing department of a flagship. Her professional life is a nightmare; she’s been the victim of bullying for months. Thibault is an itinerant GP in Paris. In the morning, he drops Lila home, breaks up with her and takes his first call. Mathilde and Thibault know they’ll have a tough day. Mathilde fights against her will to take a sick leave and stay home. Thibault will have to live through that first day after the break-up.

A decisive day starts for both of them. Mathilde unfolds her life and analyses how it all happened. One day during one meeting, she contradicts her boss Jacques in front of other people. From small silences to bad looks and petty measures, she is progressively set aside of her working team. She isn’t invited at meetings any more, her boss stops talking to her, her colleagues start to ignore her. She’s devastated as she’s been working with Jacques for eight years and everything has always run smoothly between them. She’s given a lot of time to the firm, her job helped her resurfacing after the death of her husband. Mathilde feels betrayed because she invested a lot of herself in this company, because Jacques hired her and had always trusted her.

Delphine de Vigan perfectly describes life in an office: the furniture, the discussions near the coffee machine, the gossips, the lunches with colleagues, the good moments too. The relationships are friendly but shallow. Everything Mathilde says is true to life: the hypocrite speech of the HR lady, the cowardice of her colleagues who are too afraid to lose their jobs to help her. She also perfectly shows how violent it is, and how difficult it is to survive when you become the black sheep. We see the slow deconstruction of Mathilde. She’s the victim and yet she’s ashamed of her situation, as if she were responsible of what happens to her. The firm is a merciless machine that breaks the feeble, promotes selfishness through a good dose of fear. The psychological mechanisms made me think of women beaten by their husbands.  It also reminded me of Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb.

Thibault has a different form of fatigue. His job eats him alive too. He spends an awful lot of time on the streets, stuck in traffic jam and wasting time to park his car. At 43 and after a solid decade as an itinerant GP, he has seen his lot of misery. We accompany him during his visits to the old lady who lives in a filthy apartment, to an obnoxious businessman who’d decided of his prescription by himself, to a lovely young woman who has all the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Somehow, on that 20 of May, his protective armour has holes. He’s affected by his patients, he’s upset to a point he needs pauses between appointments. His ruined love life left him bare and sensitive to his patients’ miseries.

Through eyes of Mathilde and Thibault, Delphine de Vigan gives an acute vision of working life in Paris. I worked there during three years. It was exhausting and we didn’t have any children at the time. Mathilde uses public transports to go to work and what Delphine de Vigan minutely describes is true, totally true. Everything is there, the unwritten circulation rules in the underground, the speed, the urgent need to get into the métro not to be late, the heat, the crowd. If Mathilde experiences underground transports, Thibault lives the nightmare of driving in a big city. Both are sort of crushed by the city, the anonymity, the indifference to other people, the incivility. When I moved in Paris, I looked at all these people rushing, running, looking like they could kill someone to get in their métro. I swore to myself I’d never become like this. And I kept my promise, any time I was tempted to run to catch a métro, I resisted.

The chapters alternate between Mathilde and Thibault and their voice felt real. Everything takes place in the same day, with flashbacks. Their pain, their fears, their despair were tangible and vivid. Delphine de Vigan chose to put the same sentences in their minds sometimes, it enforced the feeling of parallel lives. People think and feel alike but don’t meet in the big city. Her prose is sober and I felt close to the characters.

Although what she writes is really Parisian, there are no obscure references and it is easily accessible to foreigners. I have listened to the audio version and it was gripping. Our lives hold together on nothing. In the comments on my post about La Cousine Bette, we discussed the fear of ruin in 19th C novels and noticed that we tend to forget this threat is real nowadays too. This novel is a reminder. Modern life and security aren’t words that go together well. Have a boss a little too ready to take offence and your life turns to hell.

I’m not usually attracted by books that remind me too much about my working day but this one is good and it is important that novelists write about our life and our society.  I’m not saying that Delphine de Vigan is the new Zola but her novel is an honest scrutiny of the incredible violence experienced by people at work. It is also a lucid look at what big cities and their oppressive atmosphere do to their inhabitants. And if Zola were alive now, wouldn’t be interested in how companies can be weapons of destruction for their employees?

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