Dollars to Doughnuts

Washington City Paper | February 3, 2006
Apparently there’s an identity crisis in corporate America. And it involves doughnuts.

In the opening scene of Max Barry’s Company, someone in Training Sales, on the 14th floor of the Zephyr Corporation, eats a doughnut he shouldn’t have. New hotshot salesman Roger quickly develops a suspect list of who might have taken his cherished morning snack: Was it one of his rival salesmen? Precocious assistants who have “no right to speak” at staff meetings? The chilly department manager? The question occupies Roger’s thoughts for the rest of the day, even the rest of the month. Hearts are broken. Co-workers are demoted and then fired on suspicion of confectionery theft. Into this environment walks bright-eyed, Omega Management System–reading business grad Stephen Jones, hoping to make his impression on the corporate universe.

Barry paints Jones with the same brush Douglas Adams used for Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Though Company lacks the Guide’s profound cleverness, its grasp of the absurd runs strong, especially as the company relentlessly replaces individual identity with corporate identity. Stephen’s new-guy name tag says only “Jones.” The Zephyr offices completely lack windows, and an elevator panel marks the floors backward—from the lobby on the 20th floor to the CEO’s penthouse office on the first. Orange company logos dominate the building’s landscape, line the desks, and tinge the glass panels surrounding the “logo-free oasis” around the mini garden in the lobby.

Still, Jones’ confusion might not be so acute if he knew what business, exactly, Zephyr is in. To get an answer to that question, he begs up and down the company hierarchy but does little better than the company mission statement:

Zephyr Holdings aims to build and consolidate leadership positions in its chosen markets, forging profitable growth opportunities by developing strong relationships between internal and external business units and coordinating a strategic, consolidated approach to achieve maximum returns for its shareholders.

Hardly helpful. So Jones spends the first half of the novel enlisting friends to look for a real answer. At every turn, he encounters utter indifference, but his affability persuades co-workers to humor him in his search for a product or service that Zephyr actually provides. The more Jones discovers, the more interested they become, until a doughnut-craving, caffeine-induced rebellion simmers at the surface.

Company explores the fear many have that something elusive, disingenuous—perhaps even sinister—is lurking at the heart of corporate culture. But despite the tenor of his previous novel, Jennifer Government—about a world run by the likes of Bechtel and McDonald’s—and his blog, Tales of Corporate Oppression, Barry insists he’s no knee-jerk anti-corporate polemicist; the real objects of his wrath, he’s blogged, are the lax laws, passive citizenry, and overzealous capitalists that foster heartless corporations in the first place. While such instant classics as Office Space, Ricky Gervais’ The Office, and even Dilbert satirize the politics and interpersonal strife that plague the white-collar workplace, Company imbues that goofball shirt-and-tie lampoon with a smart, systematic satire of the entire market-driven, late-capitalist endeavor.

This isn’t to say there isn’t character parody, both sharp and flat. On the contrary, Barry makes quick use of all the available tropes: Freddy, the sales rep who’s canned because he makes too much in royalties; Eve, the lusty, social-climbing receptionist who drives a sports car and just might be sleeping with the elusive CEO; a VP nicknamed “the Phoenix” who’s survived decades of cuts and his own incompetence to rise, time and time again, through the ranks to senior management; Elizabeth, the hormonal sales rep who falls in love with every mark, at least until they sign the deal; and countless other oddballs who neatly contrast with Jones’ straight-arrow act.

Company makes the most hay when Jones gives his noble quest a rest and just watches the higher-ups do their jobs. Like when Blake Seddon, the slick Zephyr executive who’s clearly pulling more than his share of strings, tells a riotous crowd of downsized employees, “You were pulling the company down. I don’t want to come off as overly critical, but you do deserve this.” Soon enough, Jones himself buys in, musing, “Let the workers suck up a little competitive pressure....let them get a taste of the free market.”

Barry brings his A-game when depicting what a joke this kind of thinking has made of the American work ethic. A company whose workers are expected by management to achieve ever more farcical levels of productivity while perpetually fearing for their jobs ends up producing nothing. (This, too, is part of the gag.) In this productivity vacuum, Jones, obsessed with getting to the bottom of his company, predictably ends up at the top, breaking through security to demand a visit with the CEO.

But all at once, just as Jones gets his meeting and puts two and two together, something in Company changes—and not for the better. It’s possible to ignore that Jones is just a bit too radical, too unwilling to swallow management’s pill for a rookie sales assistant who presumably swallowed it happily in business school. What rings false is the way, after an increasingly absurd search for answers at Zephyr, Jones stumbles upon a flat, garishly unfunny explanation for all the mystery. In many ways, the big plot twist is precisely what you’d think it might be. Barry deflates his fun, brilliant comic world and turns the story into a good-guy-vs.-bad-company thriller. The shift in tone happens one-third of the way into the novel; by the next page, not only has the dramatic tension evaporated, but much of the humor has gone flat, too. Company never quite regains its steam, though Barry spends the novel’s second half bringing his characters new depth. As the farce fades, and a newly empowered Jones climbs the corporate ladder, something of the book’s magic fades as well.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to deny Barry’s delicate touch. His satire is subtle, done through his creations’ personalities, rather than an assault by Barry’s agenda—not that Company has to reach so far to find ways to lambaste the system. American workers’ shoddy commitment to their jobs and the fact that it is entirely ownership’s fault both provide ample fodder for Barry. And if there’s an overarching, sober message to Company, a novel that swings so violently from insane to inane, it’s that pride in one’s job comes from having self-respect, from feeling like what you do amounts to something. When workers allow corporate America to take that away, it can hardly be surprising that they lose focus on the task at hand and become obsessed with doughnuts.

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