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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”

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