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Feb 07

A Review of Company by Max Barry

I fell in love with Max Barry’s writing before there was a Max Barry.  I don’t mean that literally, obviously, Max existed prior to me reading his work – at least I think so.  What I mean is that I read the first chapter of Syrup (his first book) a few weeks before its publication date.

 

You see I was doing this publishing and editing course at RMIT.  It was my second year of the course and we were doing the editing fiction bit of the degree.  A very attractive lady editor came in, handed us the first chapter of this soon to be published book called Syrup by Maxx Barry (notice the extra x) and asked us to critique it.

 

Well I fell in love with the writing.  We were meant to be critiquing this thing but I could find nothing wrong with it.  Actually, I was really shitty that the attractive editor lady hadn’t handed us Maxx’s (notice the extra x) entire manuscript.  So the day Syrup came out in Australia I bought it, read it and told all my friends about it.

 

And thus my relationship with Maxx (notice the extra x) was born.

 

When I got involved with the Continuum conventions I suggested that we invite Maxx (notice the extra – actually this gag is getting stale and anyway by that stage he’d lost the extra x.  It was all part of a marketing ploy for Syrup) as a guest to the convention because he lived in Melbourne and he seemed like a really cool bloke. The organizers said yes, so I e-mailed him, and after what seemed like forever but was possibly only three or so months he said yes, he’d love to come.

 

And as you can see from this gallery (http://www.continuum.org.au/c4_gallery_c2.htm), there he is, at Continuum 2, wowing the crowd with his author like powers.

 

At the time of that convention Jennifer Government, Max’s second novel, had just hit the stands.  And it was good as well, but not as good as Syrup.

 

This year has seen the release of his third novel, Company.  Even though Max lives in Melbourne, the book has yet to appear in this country.  But I couldn’t wait and bought myself a copy of the hardcover on Amazon.

 

The first thing that strikes you about the book is the big doughnut on the cover with a bite taken from it.  The second thing that strikes you about the book is the horrid orange and red logo that runs down the spine and the interior.  The third thing that strikes you about the book (and by this stage I was getting quite the bruise) is how good the book is.

 

For me, the major problem with Jennifer Government was that the book had been populated by a bunch of characters that were nothing more than stereotypes.  Of course, that was mostly the point about the book.  Max is satirist and here he was poking fun at corporate logos, speculating on a world where people’s surnames came from the Company or Organizations they worked for.  So I’d be Ian VicRoads.  As an idea it was great, and the book was funny and it has some great moments.  But because the characters were mostly defined by their marketing logos, they never really came alive.  Still, that didn’t stop me from having fun with the book.

 

But with Company, Max (it just feels odd calling him Barry in this review) has found the right balance between being satirical and developing his characters.  In a book that is mostly about dehumanization, Max has drawn some very human characters.

 

The protagonist is a guy called Steve Jones, naïve and innocent, starting his first day at work at Zephyr.  In one day he’s about to find out that Zephyr is a very odd place to work for, the sort of place where no-one has met the CEO, where a question about a missing doughnut can become a witch-hunt and where not doing your job properly (or at all) can keep you from being fired.

 

Jones tries to figure what really is going on with Zephyr, and the truth he discovers (which I’m not going to tell you) is not only mind blowingly clever, but also seems horribly… well… plausible.

 

You don’t need to have worked in a company to enjoy Company, but it helps.  This books picks apart many of the odds things company do and say.  Max especially focuses on the sort of Orwellian double-speak that companies have made common place over the last decade – things like internal and external business units and strategic development and human resources.

 

This is not a laugh out loud funny book (though it is very funny).  Instead it’s a very insightful exploration of how companies gone mad can turn human into drones.  As one of the character points out, work/life balance simply doesn’t work in terms of productivity.  A relaxed and happy staff does not make good workers.  It’s perhaps not the most original observation made, but what Max does so successfully is build this idea, this philosophy around a bloody clever plot and a bunch of character that we care about.

 

Company is easily Max’s best book.  It’s one that shows his developing maturity as a writer.  The style is present tense, which is one that sometimes can be irritating but in this instance gives the book a breathless, pacy feel.  It usually takes me a week to read a novel of about 300 or so pages.  This one took me three days.  I couldn’t put it down; the narrative just propelled me along.

 

So, go and do yourself a favour and buy Company when it finally appears in Australia.  It’s a damn fine book that not only will make you laugh and nod knowingly at all the weird things that companies do, but also will make you think.  And that can only be a good thing.

 

You can find plenty more about Max (including when Company might be coming out in Australia) on his website:  http://www.maxbarry.com/

 

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