I liked pretending my body was two hundred tons of unstoppable steel

Machine Man

Machine Man
by Max Barry

Max Barry was one of the first authors Tim introduced me to that he loved, back in the heady early days of our relationship when we were young and worried about agreeing on things like whether a book or film or album or TV show was complete genius. We’re over that now, but on Max Barry we still agree – he’s a great author and it is criminal that this book was never properly published in the UK (a Kindle version was eventually released in 2013, presumably after he signed a publishing deal for his new book Lexicon). Tim picked this up in the US and after waiting a year to let him to read it first, I gave up on that and read it for myself.

In fairness, Tim has read the first third or so of this before, albeit in its original unedited form. Barry did something a bit unusual with this book: he published the whole thing online in daily excerpts, initially free and later to subscribers only. Possibly this is related to the lack of a UK publisher, but the formally published version has been heavily edited because, as Barry concedes in his author’s note, what his online fans read (and often fed back on) was just a first draft, and one that was for the most part written on an odd schedule to meet the self-imposed daily deadline.

“As a boy, I wanted to be a train. I didn’t realise this was unusual – that other kids played with trains, not as them. They liked to build tracks and have trains not fall off them. Watch them go through tunnels. I didn’t understand that. What I liked was pretending my body was two hundred tons of unstoppable steel. Imagining I was pistons and valves and hydraulic compressors.”

The story is typical Barry – a sci-fi thriller with great characters, love, humour and a strong anti-corporate theme. Charles Neumann is a scientist and engineer working for Better Future, a large company with fingers in many pies. Charlie is socially awkward, probably autistic. Certainly, his reaction to losing his leg in an industrial accident isn’t a typical one, but in his voice it seems perfectly reasonable. He sees the opportunity to build himself a new leg that’s more than just a prosthesis. But then the artificial leg will be better than his remaining healthy leg, which poses a problem. Or is it an opportunity?

“I woke to a terrible cramp in my foot. Not the foot I had. The other one. I groped around in the dark, grimacing and clutching at empty sheets. I hauled myself upright and turned on the lamp and threw back the sheets. ‘See. Nothing there.’ I was talking to my brain. ‘Nothing to hurt.’ I leaned forward and pretended to massage the space where my toes would have been. As a scientist, I am not proud of this. But it seemed to help.”

An added romantic complication is Lola, the prosthetist, who is surprisingly sympathetic to Charlie’s way of thinking. And there’s a whole array of managers from Better Future whose reaction to Charlie’s surreptitious new project isn’t wholly expected either. He soon finds himself caught in a bewildering web of people he isn’t sure he can trust.

“I had been going about this all wrong. Biology was not ideal. When you thought about it, biological legs couldn’t do anything except convey a small mass from A to B, so long as A and B were not particularly far apart and you were in no hurry. That wasn’t great…If you were designing something within that limitation, then okay, good job. But if you weren’t, it seemed to me you could build in a lot more features.”

This book has some surprising plot turns (not exactly twists) and it definitely fulfils the thriller requirement of keeping you reading avidly. Charlie’s narration gives it all a fresh angle as he often doesn’t understand why people react the way they do, but of course as the reader you can see both sides. It’s darkly funny and also quite moving. I felt at times that this had a lot in common with Flowers for Algernon (which is my favourite sci-fi book) and I wonder if Charlie’s name might be a nod to that classic.

Published 2011 by Vintage Books.

Source: Tim bought it at the Last Bookstore, LA.

It makes me think of shoulder pads

Company
by Max Barry

I am a fan of Max Barry so it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It did take me longer to get into than his previous novels Syrup and Jennifer Government because the setting was so very…corporate. But then that’s what it’s all about: corporations.

This is a comedy, a satire really, about big business. Barry takes lots of extreme examples of corporate practices (including some that must surely be entirely his own imagination, right?) and crams them in to one extremely funny book.

Good satire uses characters and situations that are recognisable to the reader. You know that people like this exist, though in most cases you hope to not come across too many examples of them in real life. It’s the combination of extremes, plus some skillful writing, that makes it funny.

This can lead to ill-formed caricatures that fail to emotionally engage the reader, which isn’t the end of the world for me but can be offputting for some people. The characters in Company are definitely three-dimensional but I must admit to lacking any great interest in their fates. The book has an epilogue featuring some of the key characters that to me felt superfluous – the previous chapter had a better, more final ending. But no doubt other readers will appreciate the confirmation of who ended up where.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned the plot at all yet. This is because there is a plot development early on that is pivotal to the story but I really hesitate to reveal it to potential readers. So if you haven’t read the book yet and think that maybe you might (and I highly recommend it) then you should stop reading this review here. No, really. But come back when you’ve read it and let me know what you thought.

So, for those of you who have already read the book or really don’t mind spoilers, I will continue.

It was suggested to me that this novel isn’t true satire because Barry uses a plot device to explain the sheer number of and extremity of the management techniques that this company – Zephyr Holdings Inc. – uses. It turns out that Zephyr is a fake conpany being used – against the knowledge of its employees – as a testbed for management techniques. The novel starts with the first of day of work for new employee Stephen Jones. His suspicions are quickly aroused when he discovers that no one can tell him what Zephyr actually does. He is an idealistic recent graduate and is appalled when he stumbles on the truth. At first he lets himself be persuaded that it’s not so bad, that the findings of research here go into extremely popular management textbooks and therefore any progress they make is good for the whole world. However, his conversations with those in charge soon dispell this myth.

I really enjoyed the brief scenes between Jones and his sister as he tries to explain his new job or Zephyr itself and it’s so clear that the situation is bizarre. They are a great contrast with daily life at the office where hundreds of employees accept the weirdness of Zephyr. It’s an excellent device that allows Barry to really push the depiction of a big international company to extremes without it being unbelievable. This isn’t about humdrum pointlessness like Office Space, this is about companies treating their employees badly and knowing that they are doing so, in the name of productivity or cost-effectiveness or whatever the latest buzzword is.

There are some interesting subplots, such as the salesman obsessed with finding out who stole his doughnut (and I mean obsessed) or the woman who falls in love with her customers. There’s also some good variations on office romance, with a few different angles covered.

So is it satire if you have an excuse for the far-fetched plot? I think so. And if not, this is still a very well observed, archly funny novel about a situation that we’re all quite happy to see picked apart.

Published 2007 by Vintage
ISBN: 978-1-4000-7937-7