Tag Archives: corporate culture

The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

“I’m an asshole and not loyal to anyone, not even myself.”

Just what makes people laugh is hard to predict, and although I’m always on a quest to read something comic, it’s rare that a book is so funny that I laugh out loud. For sheer unadulterated cheek, The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is going to make my best of the year list. It’s not a perfect book, and it wobbled on the ending, but I loved this book for its no-holds barred, outrageously nasty narrator.  For anyone who’s read and enjoyed early Max Barry (Syrup, Company), you should know what I’m talking about when I say that The Deep Whatsis, set in the cutthroat corporate world intent on downsizing, could be written by Max Barry’s evil twin brother. If he had one that is. As much as I enjoyed this book, my wholehearted recommendation comes with a Black Box Warning: if you’ve recently been the victim of downsizing or termination, or if the prospect looms in the near future, then you probably shouldn’t read The Deep Whatsis as it might send you spiraling into the abyss.

The Deep WhatsisSo let’s get beyond the cover, and sink into the nastiness I so enjoyed….

Our pathological liar narrator, Eric Nye is thirty-three, a right piece of work who’s hired at an indecently huge salary by Tate, a worldwide ad agency as “Executive Creative Director slash Chief Idea Officer.” Nye’s job is to move into the New York offices and “clean house,”–a euphemism for firing people. According to Nye he was “brought in to create a culture of innovation and creativity, meaning get rid of the dead wood, shitcan the old and the slow and the weak.” Nye is already horribly overpaid, but he’s also slated to get a big fat bonus if he meets his goal to fire 50% of the staff. Those targeted for termination are in their late 40s and over–those about to qualify for  a small pension. Together with the anorexic  “HR lady,” Nye “creates a dynamic of fear,” as he selects one person after another for firing and then begins his “danse macabre” with his “prey.” Nye compares the way he has developed of “ritualizing” his elaborate methods of firing employees to bullfighting, and of course, he’s the armed matador. It’s a well-drawn comparison, for Nye ruthlessly plays with his victims, letting them know that his attention is on them which sparks a frantic range of paranoid reactions in those about to be fired.

So while Nye spends his days at work (when he bothers to show up) either firing his next victim or playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the next candidate for downsizing, he spends his nights in a hazy drunken state. And it’s this sort of soulless behaviour that leads to Nye’s “meta-doom” when he takes a girl he cavalierly calls “Intern” back to his swanky pad full of expensive designer items–including his eight-hundred-dollar Dalai Lama Edition Tibetan throw rug. There’s something about this girl he just can’t shake, and when she joins the Tate office, Nye begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that he has a stalker.

The story careens between Nye’s heavily medicated days at the office and his drunken and chemically wrecked nights–some of which are spent with Nye’s only friend (and I’m using that term loosely), Seth Krallman “playwright turned pot dealer turned yoga guru,” who hopes that Nye will get him a job and purchase his expensive car. Nye,  a would be-playwright stuck on page two, and Seth secretly despise one another. Here’s Nye on the subject of Seth:

He’s a pretentious idiot, a so-called avant garde playwright who had twelve or thirteen seconds of notoriety in the east Village in the late ’90s when he chained himself to the stage of a tiny theater for a month as some kind of protest slash performance, peeing in a crystal bowl and mixing it with champagne and drinking it every night at precisely midnight, while reciting some poetry.

In a world obsessed with the getting and spending of money, the morally reprehensible Nye is aware that there’s no meaning to life. Even art is served up as some sort of tasteless parody of itself, and in one section Nye attends an art show called, “Show Us Your Tits!” While Nye claims to “feel fine” about cutting employee after employee loose, and outwardly appears to enjoy the massacre he’s conducting at the office, there are indications that at least on some level, he’s paying a price for his cutthroat behaviour. Perhaps it’s his conscience that causes his insomnia and lack of appetite. With his life in a downward spiral, Nye still manages to operate on two levels–on one level he’s slick, hip and conscienceless, but there’s also a sly self-awareness.

Here’s Nye lying to a therapist:

“I’ve never really had a relationship with anyone and I’m thirty-three. I guess that’s not so weird since the advent of video games and reality television, not to mention that new porno app everybody is talking about, thirty-three is the new nine.”

Then I put an unexpected twist into the story, a MacGuffin.

“I guess it all goes back to my mom,” I say and then without thinking what’s coming up next, there it is sliding out of my mouth. “She died in a car accident when I was ten years old. I saw the whole thing.”

The rest of it writes itself. “I was standing in our front yard and my mom was driving down the street. In my mental re-creation of that day I surmise that she was drunk because when she got to our house instead of slowing down to let a garbage truck pass she must have hit the gas instead of the brake. She lurched forward right into the front of the truck as it was zooming by.”

I figure this would be an excellent place for a pause and so I put one there. I look up at him and waited, wondering why I am making up all these tales when there are perfectly valid truths I could be telling him.

The Deep Whatsis is hilariously, savagely funny, and so of course, while Nye’s victims pile up, we can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. Even Nye, who is unleashed at Tate, has to answer to someone, and in one wonderful scene, he’s called in to get chewed out by his boss.

What a disgusting man, I think, how many awful chemicals there must be lodged in every crevice of every tissue of his body, which may be why at sixty-whatever he’s still working here, still alive preserved in chemicals, he’ll never die because technically he’s already dead, he’s undead, he’s pickled by fear, lies, and nicotine.

“I gotta get off the goddamn phone,” he says to whoever he’s talking to and tosses the thing away. “Nye,” he says to no one in particular but since that is my name I know he must mean me, “get your hipster ass in here.” Then he stuffs his breakfast sandwich into the fleshy maw located in the center of his colorless face and keeps pushing until most of it is jammed in there and then he begins chewing, bent over the desk so that the egg yolk drips out and runs down over his chin like yellow chicken cum onto the crumpled tin foil in front of him. “Where’s your cohort?”

“I wanted to talk to you first, just the two of us,” I explain.

“Fine, good, now I can chew your ass out in private.”

“That’s what I figured, sir.”

“Close the door and don’t call me sir. I know you hate my guts.” Barry is worth at least fifty or sixty million since the agency was sold to La Groupe S. A, the holding company that owns the holding company owned by M. J-C.

“I don’t hate your guts, Bar,” I say, “I love you,” and at the moment this is basically true. He puts down the last bit of his egg-and-sausage, sucks at the ends of his fingers, and reaches for the smoldering Newport sitting in the battery-operated vacuum-action ashtray that sits next to the Smoke Eater. He takes a long drag on the butt and leans over toward the machine and exhales into it again like it’s some girl or cat he’s trying to get high. I almost expect him to tongue the thing.

“I assume you don’t mind if I smoke,” he says, probably reading from a script he wrote for legal reasons; but sitting here I’ve clearly given up my right to take action. “They don’t even let me smoke outside this building any more, can you believe that? Somebody complained about the secondhand smoke out on the sidewalk. It’s New York Fucking City, it’s Tenth Fucking Avenue.”

“Times change, I guess.”

“Oh shut the fuck up you asshole,” he says to me.

The Deep Whatsis is a very funny novel, but there are some ugly truths here as we see Nye trying to grab that bonus. In order to succeed, he’s supposed to leave every shred of humanity behind, and he does this quite successfully, refusing to “sugar-coat” the firing process or pretty it up as something that it clearly isn’t. In Nye’s world, empathy is seen as weakness while sociopathic tendencies almost guarantee success in the corporate world in which savagery, self-centeredness and self-promotion trump all other human qualities. Nye fires people with gusto, those with new babies, those with disabled relatives, and even one man for wearing pleated Dockers–no one is spared. And while he appears to take glee in his work and his well-honed psychological warfare, he despises himself for what he has become–a cog in the corporate machine, gradually losing his grip on reality. Original, subversive and savagely funny (loved the Wikipedia page) this book, replete with Nye’s various theories of life, offers a dark portrait of the cutthroat nature of the corporate world and the vapidity of our consumerist society in which the void left by a lack of humanity is filled with meaningless objects.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Mattei Peter

Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan

“There comes a time in every man’s life when he wakes up drunk on the toilet and begins to doubt the choices he has made. And when that time comes at least twice a day, every day, something needs to be done.”

After a particularly revolting week at work, I decided I needed an attitude adjustment, so I returned to a book that made me laugh a lot a few years ago–Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. I had two goals: to laugh and to fine-tune my work mind-set to apathy–that glorious state of detachment.

This is the third reading of Apathy, and I found this book a few years ago thanks to a whole-hearted recommendation from Australian author Max Barry. I bought about a dozen copies as gifts and lent out my copy which resulted in a repurchase when it was not returned. Apathy‘s author has a blog: www.apathy.typepad.com/paulneilan/ and I’ve been hoping for a second novel (no pressure, Paul). Someone this funny deserves to be in print.

Shane, the hapless antihero of Apathy is a morally reprehensible man in his twenties–a slacker if you will. He isn’t as awful/evil/sick as the protagonist in Henry Sutton’s fantastic Get Me Out of Here–he’s no serial killer, but on the other hand, Shane doesn’t have a great deal to recommend him either. When Apathy begins, Shane is already deep in shit, and then the novel goes back in time to explain how Shane ended up naked, covered in salt and with two detectives calling him “partyboy” right before they accuse him of murder.

There are three women in Shane’s life. There’s Gwen, a woman with a long “life checklist” who’s a rather scary corporate climber within Panopticon Insurance. Shane meets Gwen in a bar and they embark on a relationship of sorts. Gwen sees sex as a challenging wrestling match:

Still, when it came to sex there’s always been the tacit understanding, or the pretense of the tacit understanding at least, that I’m in charge. That even if I’m not the guy in the back alley behind the dumpster, I’m at least some guy. A guy at least.

Not with Gwen. She manhandled me.

It was always a blur of pain and fear and domination. I remembered it, and could only deal with it afterwards, as a collection of warped polaroids stapled to the inside of my head.

Then there’s Marlene, the married deaf dental assistant with a penchant for karaoke. And the third woman in Shane’s life is the laconic wife of Shane’s landlord, Bryce. Shane can’t make the rent and so he reaches a tentative non-verbal agreement with Bryce for a break in the rent in exchange for services. Let’s call it rent-subsidized sex. Or is it sex-subsidized rent?

Here’s Shane’s landlord, Bryce:

Bryce was tall, about my height but built, with tattoos twisting all the way up his arms, snakes and hearts and daggers and all kinds of shit. He had a drawn, lean face and the transparent remains of a thinning rockabilly pompadour still clinging to his head. He’d probably been in a band a few years ago, bought into the entire scene, but it hadn’t worked out. And now he was stuck with the cigarettes and the sideburns and all those fucking Stray Cat albums.

While the characterisations are well-drawn and very funny, it’s the glimpse of corporate culture that brings the biggest laughs. Gwen, deciding that she’s Shane’s girlfriend and that all he needs is a shove in the right direction, gets Shane a demeaning job as a temp at Panopticon. She’s under the impression that if he’s given a jumpstart and conditioned, Shane can be rehabilitated into an admirable cog in the corporate machine. But like everyone else in the novel, she underestimates the power of apathy. Actually she misinterprets Shane’s apathy as “independence.” Big mistake.

So under Gwen’s recommendation, Shane finds himself working as a temp. His goal is to do nothing and to collect a paycheck for as long as possible. He spends most of his work days sleeping on the toilet, and when he’s in his cubicle, he devotes hours to creating paper clip nooses and miniature gallows:

Nobody there hated their job nearly as much as they should have. That always bothered me. I heard them complain sometimes, but it was the ineffectual bitching of people who didn’t expect anything about their situation to ever change, and who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if it did. They were all older, rounder, more compromised versions of each other, all of them middle-aged, if not in years in appearance and aspiration. It was like time-release photography of humanity in slow decline. The mushroom cloud was Hawaiian shirt day. It was depressing to picture the new girl, with her bright scarves and flipping hair thinking she was only going to be there until she found another job at a non-profit, ten years later wearing a business suit and white sneakers as she power-walked around the building on her half-hour lunch break.

In spite of the fact that Shane spends most of his days on the toilet, he has a canny eye when it comes to grasping the peculiarities of corporate life. He notes that people go to desperate lengths to personalise their cubicles, but to Shane one of the most nauseating facets of Panopticon is the morale-boosting area called “Inspiration Alley” :

And whenever I thought I was being too hard on them, I remembered Inspiration Alley. There was proof that nice, well-meaning people would politely and eventually rob the rest of us of any reason to live. Inspiration Alley was a row of cubicles stretching from the boss’s double-cube office to the  inner walkway around the elevators, and it was lined with quotations.

And there are examples of quotes including such nonsensical gibberish as this:

I looked around waiting for someone to do something. Then I realized that I was someone.

As with most comic fiction, some of the jokes misfire, and for its crude and decidedly un-PC elements, Apathy is certainly not for the easily offended. And now, dear reader, renewed and inspired by Shane’s example, I’m off to build that paper clip noose.

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Filed under Fiction, Neilan, Paul

Machine Man by Max Barry

As a long-term fan of Max Barry, I’m pimping his new book Machine Man. It’s the story of a lonely scientist, Charles Neumann who loses a leg in an accident. Unhappy with the clumsy, rudimentary capabilities of the prosthetic device, he embarks on a quest for improvement. If you are at all familiar with Max Barry’s novels, then you know to expect dark humour.

Anyway, the full review is here at Mostly Fiction

and SCORE!! for the interview go here

But here’s a quote from the book, one of my favourites that should have you either dashing to your local bookshop or putting the book in your virtual shopping cart.

This is Cassandra Cautery, from the company Better Future talking to Charles Neumann:

“I’m a middle manager,” she said. “Some people think that’s a pejorative, but I don’t. There are people above me who make business decisions and people below me who execute them and those people live in different realities. Very different. And my job is to bring them together. Mesh their realities. Sometimes they’re not completely compatible, and sometimes I don’t even understand how someone can live in the reality they do, but the point is I mesh them. I’m like a translator. Only more hands-on. And that’s what makes the company work. Middle managers, like me, meshing. So let me take a stab at your reality, Charlie. Do you know how much money there is in medical? A lot. And more every year, because you invent a better heart and it doesn’t matter how much it costs, people want it. because you’re selling them life.” She blinked.  “You’re selling them life.” She patted her jacket pockets. “I need a pen. But what’s the problem with medical? The market is limited to sick people. Imagine: you sink thirty million into developing the world’s greatest artery valve and someone goes and cures heart disease. It would be a disaster. not for the … not for the people obviously. I mean for the company. Financially. I mean this is the kind of business risk that makes people upstairs nervous about signing off on major capital investment.”

And here’s Charles meeting physical therapist, Dave:

Then came the physical therapist. The second he bounced in I realized I was back in gym class. He was fit and tan and wore a hospital polo shirt small enough that his biceps strained the seams. Tucked beneath one was a clipboard. The only thing missing was a whistle.

And finally here’s Max on Youtube with a preview of Machine Man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEN10axDJtA

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Filed under Barry, Max, Fiction