The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tagto see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.
Like a less-overt episode of The Twilight Zone, The Exterminating Angel puts people in a weird situation and then sees what happens before putting a final twist of the knife at the very end. It’s unlike most other movies in that it isn’t super concerned with characters or even a story as such. And for all of its surrealism and absurdity, the events of the film mostly follow logically from one to the next. Everything, that is, except for the first few minutes, which feature the servants in a baroque Spanish mansion trying to leave before the start of a dinner party that will prove to last quite a long time. We see two maids hide in a closet as the group of rich revelers enter the house and go upstairs to the banquet hall. Here the maids see their escape route open, only to have the same set of guests enter and perform the same actions a second time around. It’s your first hint that something is up here and it’s delightful and off-putting at the same time.
With Company, author Max Barry, writes a fine entry in contemporary satirical business writing. As silly a genre as that sounds like it is a well populated one, with The Office (both versions) and Parks and Recreation and even The Crimson Permanent Assurance (the short film in front of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life about a company in the middle of a takeover which suddenly turns into a pirate ship/building and assaults their new bosses with the weapons available to any average office worker) being both popular and well received by critics. It is a genre that stretches back to Bartleby, the Scrivener, that endless source of high school and college papers about disaffected cogs in the corporate machine that sometimes grind to a halt with only a small, quiet “I would prefer not to,” as a rallying cry. Everyone, it seems, from Mr. Martin of James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat to Company’s own Jones (he’s not given a first name because the nametag at his new job shows only his last) gets annoyed at the politics and demeaning nature of corporate life but only some are in a position to do anything about it.
Jones, the newest employee at Zephyr Holdings’ Training Sales division arrives at work only to find that Zephyr is nothing like other companies – or is it too much like other companies? There’s the inter-office romances, the way some departments fight with others over silly things like office supplies and meeting room schedules, and a missing donut can bring about a complete corporate restructuring. And then there’s the things about Zephyr that are a little strange: the fact that nobody can tell you what Zephyr actually does, the way that the company exists solely to make other parts of the company do things (Marketing, for example, only markets to other departments), the attractive receptionist who is never at the desk and parks her sports car in the front parking lot, the CEO that nobody has ever actually seen. Yes, something strange is happening at Zephyr Holdings and the only man who can get to the bottom is Jones.
The problem with the book, unfortunately, is Jones. He’s just kind of boring. He doesn’t seem to have any real distinguishing characteristics. It feels like Max Barry was going for the everyman idea so that we would go along on the journey with Jones but I became less and less invested in his part of the story as the book went on. In fact, he has only one or two real acts that make him seem like a real person and not just an archetype. The first leads him to the heart of Zephyr while the other involves what he finds there. They are actual things that happen and we begin to see him as a fully developed character, but only just. Thankfully, almost everybody else in the book is more fleshed out. Jones’ Training Sales co-workers are jealous, lustful, neurotic, sad, power-hungry in turn and they’re interactions are delightful. Then there’s the nice-car-driving receptionist, Eve Jantiss, who starts off an alluring, mysterious but likable character and morphs slowly into something very different. She’s probably the best creation here because she seem so real. Her desires are human desires amplified to their full, horrifying potential. I don’t doubt that people like Eve exist, it’s just unfortunate that they do.
Company is a satire at its heart and it does the satire well. There’s the corporate speak, leveraging market vectors and so forth, and the increasingly ridiculous things Zephyr does in the name of the bottom line. It is quite a funny book. The real comparison point for this book is the woefully underremembered 1998 film The Truman Show. No, Jones isn’t being recorded for a constantly airing reality tv show where he’s the only one that doesn’t know his world is a lie, but there is something bigger going on here. And, like The Truman Show, Company manages to find some degree of emotional truth by the end. Jones doesn’t figure much into this part of the book, other than as a catalyst, but his coworkers are able to overcome their petty politicking and corporate gamesmanship to realize that they are more than just people that work together. They are, effectively, people that live together. They spend so much of their time together that when they finally stop one-upping each other they find that they genuinely like one another. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s given with enough sugar to make the medicine go down quickly and easily.