This book was all the Top 10 lists of 2007. It was supposed to be great. And I did enjoy it; I blew through it in just a few days. It was eminently readable, and in some ways, it captured office culture in a way I've never seen. We tend to discount the time we spend in the office as not our "real life," when truly, it is a huge part of our time on this earth. And what is life but the moments that we live through? He captured the way that, in an office where you've worked for years, something like a particular stain on the carpet can become a sort of landmark. And the rituals of procrastination that we use to fill up so many of our days, the trips to the coffee bar, the snack machines, the bathrooms. And the pettiness, the vying for bigger offices or better chairs that goes on in every office.
But at the same time, I just didn't find it believable. The manager is cast as the bright yet lonely over-achiever, a spinster who gave up love and children for her career and isn't sure she did the right thing. She is undoubtedly smarter than her employees, above their childish pranks. We are led to believe that there is good reason why she is up there and they are down there. This feels like a bit of a cliche to me, even though the section on her is beautifully rendered. And I don't like the idea that the boss is somehow truly superior to the peons who work for her. It rang hollow, even a bit insulting, to a peon like me. Maybe that's just my hubris talking.
The peons in the book take their childishness to incredible extremes. They spend days and weeks angling for the best chair, obsessing over whether they will be caught for stealing a laid-off coworker's chair, ribbing their colleagues for ridiculous and mean-spirited reasons. They have no true kindness or concern for each other. When a female coworker's young daughter is murdered, they discover that the bereaved mother spends her lunch hours sitting in the balls at McDonald's Playland. Instead of offering her help or sympathy, they go to the restaurant in groups to spy and laugh at her. The portrayal of these workers borders on misanthropic.
But I guess the thing that bugged me the most was the workers' response to layoffs. Instead of making plans and looking for other work, they cling blindly to their jobs. They try to work harder and look smarter to impress the boss. They just sit there like idiots, waiting to be coldly cast aside, which they all inevitably are. And most unbelievable of all to me is that, through it all, they continue to respect, almost worship, their boss. As a person working in an office where layoffs are threatening, I can tell you that this isn't at all the way people feel here. There is anger at management, and much constructive making of plans going on in these parts.
Overall, I felt like this was a book with great potential. But it wasn't finished. It didn't have a main character. It didn't have sections that hung together. It didn't have an ending that took us anywhere. I think maybe the message of the book was supposed to be that the point of life is just to live it and enjoy it, and that most of us lose that meaning as we spend our days vying for bigger offices and promotions and money and status. But I don't think that message came across. Instead, I was left with the idea that people are generally cruel and shallow and headed nowhere. And I don't really like that idea.