Company by Max Barry

Years working for global giant Hewlett Packard clearly did not inspire Australian novelist Max Barry to a career in management, but they appear to have given him ample material for his latest effort. Company takes the reader inside the corporate labyrinth of Zephyr Holdings, Inc. — a company that or may not have any actual clients. The result is a chaotic satire of the modern corporate workplace.

Capital-H Hero and youthful idealist Stephen Jones arrives at Zephyr as a graduate trainee right at a time of significant change. Entire areas of the company are being rationalised, staff are cutting costs everywhere they can (even boarding up windows) and Sales Representative Roger Jefferson is on a quest to find who took the last donut. Faced with this bizarre set-up, Jones wants answers. And he wants change.

Barry’s corporate world is both familiar and absurd. Zephyr is the company that follows every crackpot management strategy you thought was too ridiculous to contemplate. Staff welfare is non-existent, yet people seem to tolerate it. While the petty squabbles and managerial directives seem like the products of a seriously deranged mind, most working people will find them believable.

With this hyper-realistic premise and some amusing set pieces, Company is an engrossing read. It also provides an opportunity for Barry to explore serious economic and moral issues. Company asks the hard questions: Is it always more profitable to ignore human dignity? How much mistreatment will people tolerate? To whom are large corporations answerable?

Basic economics teaches us that self-interest is the guiding principle of capitalism. As Zephyr’s managers point out, employees will always seek to do less work for more pay and shareholders will always seek more output for less input. It’s a negotiation, a trade-off. Whoever wields the greatest power wins.

In the current economic climate, workers have more power than they have had in a long time. People with rare skills or strong experience can negotiate themselves excellent conditions. There is still an underclass of price-takers, but we are in a very different situation to the mass unemployment of past eras. Yet Barry’s questions remain important. A small slowdown in the world economy and shareholders will again demand cost-cutting and staff-trimming. And the company you work for could start to resemble Zephyr Holdings more than you’d like.

These are important issues. Yet while the story moves at a cracking pace and laughs are plenty, the critique is only a touch more potent than your average Dilbert comic. The characters are certainly less endearing. Jones in particular is little more than a plot device dressed up in a nice new suit. He’s handsome and he’s charmingly naïve in his way. He treats people well and he falls for the wrong woman but still manages to come away with his soul intact. There’s nothing to dislike about Jones, but there are few moments when his story arc is ever in doubt and his moral choices are curiously one-sided.

Perhaps the dehumanising experiments of Zephyr have unintentionally shorn Company‘s characters of personality. Jones’ co-workers are quirkier than he is, but they never really add up to more than the sum of their idiosyncrasies. Roger Jefferson’s petty donut fixation is funny but does not a complex character make.

Company has been favourably reviewed by Douglas Coupland, to whose work it bears a superficial resemblance, particularly his corporate satires Microserfs (1995) and JPod (2006). But while Coupland’s world is also stylised and barbed, his characters have far more heart than Barry’s.

Unfortunately, Company‘s answers to the classic capitalist dilemma are also pretty superficial. As the hero of the book, Jones stirs up his co-workers against the oppressive regime with a simple plea for human dignity, but he has no sense of the economic order that will replace it — how the People’s Republic of Zephyr will function into the future. So when Barry presents improved business ethics as the solution to the problem, without a functioning ethical company to demonstrate his philosophy, the reader is left feeling that maybe the message is a little bit trite.

After all, who sets the direction? Where do these ethics come from? How are they to be enforced? Depending on your political bent, you may regard tighter regulation and labour laws as the answer. Or you may not even see a problem and consider that profitable companies provide wealth for the many. These attitudes will inform the ethics that you bring to bear in corporate life.

While Company does not really answer these questions, it does offer an effective satire of contemporary management theory. Canonical management techniques are pushed to breaking point and most readers will find amusement in the logical fallacies that result. After all, what is the point of rationalising “Training Delivery” but retaining “Training Sales”?

For all its flaws, Company is a thought-provoking study of where we are and where we may be headed. It’s a curious blend of a book: a confection that manages to provoke deep reflection; a contrived, superficial novel with something important to say.