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Company

Max Barry

Doubleday, 338 pages, $32.95

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If capitalism ever falls the way communism did, it will turn out that none of us believed in the system any more than the peasants did in Stalin's five-year-plans. Until then we play along, nodding at the company's mission statement as if it had meaning, putting our faith in Total Quality Management as if we could be governed by a catchphrase. Since there is nothing more humourless than a major corporation, we accept our paycheques with a straight face and let Max Barry point out that it is all a joke.

Company is dedicated to Hewlett-Packard, where the Australia-based Barry used to toil, but its spirit of helpless mockery is universal. Zephyr Inc., a mysterious company that "aims to build and consolidate leadership positions in its chosen markets," hires an inquisitive university graduate known as Jones. Last-name-only I.D. is a recent innovation at Zephyr, one of management's depersonalization initiatives designed to cut down on wasteful chatter and enhance productivity. But that doesn't stop the overcurious Jones from trying to find out what Zephyr actually produces besides benefits to its shareholders and an increasingly frazzled work force.

When they're not busy downsizing and outsourcing their loss-making parts in order to create a more flexible workplace, Zephyr's senior managers treat their headcount -- i.e. the staff -- with deserved contempt. Happy employees are less productive, according to a definitive management study, and while the company's memos celebrate teamwork, it's more like dog-eat-dog in the windowless cubicle farms: Meetings about work-life balance are held at 7:30 a.m., workers are sacked for not meeting goals never set by managers who need an excuse to fire them, women suspected of being pregnant are summoned before a faceless Human Resources tribunal to explain their time-wasting washroom visits.

Company is less a novel than a management guide for the deranged -- even Barry amiably refers to his "unbelievable characters and inexplicable plot developments." But he's underselling a book that treats corporate creepiness with almost enough comic disdain to subdue the Orwellian sense of despair. "It would be ironic if hyperefficiency turned out to be counterproductive," says one manager with just the right note of insightful indifference.

Managers will say it's quite unfair, that they're not the psychopaths depicted here, with their sweeping hostile vision and abject willingness to make other people make sacrifices. And because they're managers, they must be right.

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