The plotline of Company is too clever by half, and the characters are little more than cartoons. Even Jones, the hero, is strangely unsympathetic and unbelievable; if he’s so damn smart, why does he subject himself to all this nonsense, and eventually befriend and defend the pathetic corporate drones around him?
Cartoons, though, have their place, and Mr. Barry offers some solid belly laughs with his dead-on caricatures of certain business types:
On level 14, Elizabeth is falling in love. This is what makes her such a good sales rep, and an emotional basket case: she falls in love with her customers. It is hard to convey how wretchedly, boot-lickingly draining it is to be a salesperson. Sales is a business of relationships, and you must cultivate customers with tenderness and love, like cabbages in winter, even if the customer is an egomaniacal asshole you want to hit with a shovel. There is something wrong with the kind of person who becomes a sales rep, or if not, there is something wrong after six months.
Mr. Barry pays close attention to the details of the cubicle world, to great effect, and his ear for the workplace medley of middle-management maneuvering and random cubicle patter is unerring. Witness this scene, as Freddy, the worrywart, no-future assistant tells his office mate Wendell about a conversation he overheard Sydney, the department head, having:
“Sydney’s been on the phone to upstairs. It’s about cost-cutting, isn’t it? Somebody’s getting canned.”
“Sydney’s talking to upstairs?”
“That’s what Megan says.”
“Well, that could mean anything. Don’t jump to conclusions. Hak-kah.”
“Hey, guys,” Elizabeth calls across the aisle. “Are you having trouble with the network? I just e-mailed Wendell and it bounced back.”
“Haven’t checked,” Roger says, not looking up.
“What was your e-mail?” Wendell says.
“I’m selling raffle tickets for the social club. Want to buy some? You can win a set of golf clubs.”
Company is dedicated to Hewlett-Packard, where Mr. Barry once worked, and you can think of it, in Hollywood terms, as HP meets Gilligan’s Island. More sitcom than novel, in the genre of slapstick rather than comic drama, Company is a very amusing if not ultimately very penetrating read.
In Generation X (St. Martin’s Press, 1991) and Microserfs (Regan Books, 1995), Douglas Coupland proved he had the rare talent to successfully capture the zeitgeist of a certain social class. His latest book, JPod, picks up the theme: the depressingly empty lives of the smart, creative 20-somethings who toil in the bowels of the technology business. The JPod is a dysfunctional group of video-game developers trying to make their way in a dysfunctional company (one that bears a suspicious resemblance to Electronic Arts), and even though our hero, Ethan, succeeds in hooking up with the new girl in the pod, the story is a strangely grim tale of 21st-century ennui. The new boss is ruining their project for the sake of a stupid private agenda; Ethan’s parents are philandering drunks, pot growers, and casual killers who seem to lead much more interesting lives than any of the JPod kids; the most sympathetic character is a Chinese gangster who just needs a little love.
Mr. Coupland himself even makes an appearance, and a not-very-heroic one at that. It’s a jarring device, and I didn’t quite get the point, unless it is to show that the author doesn’t consider himself to be above his trapped and defeatist characters. As with Company, it’s a little hard to relate: Is the job market in Vancouver, where the novel is set, really so bad that the young, educated, and computer savvy don’t have any options?