America on Empty | Book Review | Chicago Reader

America on Empty 

Two new novels take aim at the absurdities of corporate culture.


Max Barry


Apex Hides the Hurt

Colson Whitehead


The most frightening thing in Max Barry's new novel Company is not the mystery at its core--what does the fictional Zephyr corporation actually do?--but the siren call of the management gurus behind the scenes. "Customers are vermin," the CEO tells Barry's hapless protagonist. "My proudest achievement . . . is Zephyr. A customer-free company. Listen to that Mr. Jones. A customer-free company." You can almost hear executives across America pondering the possibilities, imagining the things they could do without the nagging demands of customers preying on their minds every day, disrupting profit flow and getting investors all riled up. Now, if they could only do something about those employees . . .

Barry is a satirist of the new order, raised on equal parts dystopian science fiction and midcentury absurdists like Heller and Vonnegut. His 2003 novel, Jennifer Government, imagined a near future in which people sold corporations the rights to their last names, governments were privatized, Nike took out contract hits, and fast-food franchises engaged in firefights. The book was free-market economics with assault rifles, Douglas Coupland with teeth. It was unhinged and patently incredible: for all Barry's ability to suss out consumer trends and spin them to their logical conclusions, his need to push the comic envelope ensured that little of it could be taken seriously.

Company's another story. It begins with a new employee, Stephen Jones, starting his first day at the Seattle-based Zephyr Holdings. A fresh-faced lad of above-average intellect and drive, Jones comes into the Training Sales department loaded for bear and looking to make a mark, only to be confronted by a brick wall of bureaucracy. In fact, he doesn't get any further than the lobby before he's confronted by the Zephyr mission statement, a nice-sounding paragraph of nonsense that's fairly standard corporate gobbledygook except for one thing: nowhere does it say what it is that Zephyr makes, or sells, or trades, or traffics.

After discovering that Training Sales doesn't even have customers--they only sell training packages to other Zephyr departments--Jones comes to realize that not only do his coworkers have no idea what the company does, they have little interest in finding out. And as he tries to solve the puzzle on his own, going from one person to the next and even knocking on the door of the feared and dictatorial department head, he gets the same mix of defensive befuddlement.

It's easy to mimic corporate America's petty rivalries and pointless and dehumanizing bullying--most any competent writer who's done time in its trenches could do so, and Barry apparently put in more than enough at Hewlett-Packard in the 90s. But Barry isn't interested in crafting some parable of Kafkaesque alienation. There's an actual plot here involving the gorgeous receptionist who's never at her desk, the creepy Human Resources floor (imagined as an all-seeing, all-knowing employee Panopticon), and a series of cultlike management books. And while there's plenty of existential workplace humor to be found, from the executive who refers to his employees as "headcounts" to the intradepartmental blood feud revolving around a purportedly stolen doughnut, Barry is pursuing bigger game. Unlike Dilbert or even Office Space, Company makes it clear that Barry wants to bring the whole bloodless, soul-crushing system down. The book doesn't go nearly as far as it should--it lacks Jennifer Government's cauterizing fury--but it's infused with a welcome revolutionary spirit. And given the apparent horror with which corporate America treats things like labor costs, customer service, and anything else human (better to outsource it, get it away), its premise seems almost plausible.

With so many people engaged today in obscure work involving a desk, a telephone, and a PC but no physical product, meaning often has to be found elsewhere. Shopping helps. That's where the nameless protagonist of Colson Whitehead's new novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, comes in. The holder of a ridiculous job that probably doesn't exist--but in the world of consulting, you never know--he's what's known as a "nomenclature consultant." In a nutshell, he thinks up names for new products. It seems less a job than a calling, and Whitehead's man loves it. He dreams of sounds and images, fusing them into a perfectly descriptive combination of letters. "A good name did not dry up and get old," he muses. "It waited for its intended. . . . To have a name imprinted along the bottom of a Styrofoam container, this was immortality."

At the start of this slim novel he's in seclusion, withdrawn from the high-stress consulting world. But then, wouldn't you know, his old boss calls him back for a special assignment: the fathers of the small town of Winthrop want a new name and need some help getting it.

A onetime sleepy burg located somewhere in the northeast--Whitehead is vague on specifics--Winthrop has been revitalized by the success of Aberdeen, a hot software company. But the influx of capital has brought changes to Winthrop, from new chain stores to, perversely, a growing sense of insecurity. It's as though before the town became successful the citizenry didn't know what was missing from its name. But now, with the anxiety of the nouveau riche, some residents are getting antsy, wondering "whether or not Winthrop as a name reflects new market realities." New Prospera, they argue--now that's a name.

Whitehead knows the power of names, especially in these brand-centric times, which is why he often withholds them in his prose. The nameless consultant, the big city that's obviously New York, the Starbucks-esque chain--these are all specifics the author never divulges. But a product his consultant has named is what gives the book its title.

In his previous novels, The Intuitionist (1998) and John Henry Days (2001), Whitehead showed himself to be equally interested in nomenclature and race. Here, Apex--a revolutionary, race-sensitive adhesive bandage produced in numerous different "flesh-toned" hues and distributed via ethnic micromarketing--pulls the two strands together. The naming of Apex was itself the apex of the consultant's career, and Whitehead spins a second, more interesting story line out of his protagonist's rise to fame. But he may be trying to do too much.

Apex Hides the Hurt is top-heavy with symbolism. The title is taken from an advertising slogan for the bandage but also refers to a wound that the consultant suffers when he stubs his toe. Throughout the novel the consultant ignores the pain in his foot since, after all, Apex is hiding the hurt. But given the racial component of much of the goings-on--Winthrop was originally founded by free blacks in the 19th century, a history that the new name threatens to erase--this extra layer of metaphor feels clumsy.

In fact, by the end of Apex, it's difficult to tell what Whitehead is after. The jibes at modern consumerism feel halfhearted, while the ostensibly heavy subtext of race and memory adds little, especially after John Henry Days, a tragicomic farce about, among other things, the commodification of history and expunging of racial guilt. What Whitehead seems to be getting at, with his blank prose and ghostly settings, is some expression of the lack of meaning in modern life, but that expression is obscured by a lot of dead ends and dramatic busywork. Though he aims lower, Barry comes closer to the mark with Company. It may just be that the best expression of modernity is found not in allusion and metaphor but in a spiritually exhausted office worker, staring at a blinking cursor and wondering just what it is he's doing with his life.

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