Tag Archives: company

Machine Man by Max Barry

Max Barry is a master at seeing our world and distorting it to extremes in order to reflect it back to us in all of its absurdities. His previous novels, Syrup, Jennifer Government, and Company each looked at the disfunction implicit in how our society functions and, in doing so, gives us a new perspective in where we might be heading.

Machine Man is no different. When an engineer, Charles Neumann, loses his leg in an accident at work, the way he responds is very different than how most of us might in his situation. Being an engineer, he begins to improve on the prosthetics he is issued at the hospital. However, once he realizes that the new leg he has built is better — faster, stronger, and smarter — than the leg he used to have, he embarks on a journey of self-improvement the likes of which the world has never seen.

Of course, Charles is simply taking being an engineer to a completely new level, reengineering his own body. However, at some point, his bosses take notice and see other uses for what Charles is doing. What happens when Charles’ inventions are viewed not only as improvements on prosthetics but also as products to be sold, including to the military? And where does Charles’ self-improvement end? These are the basis of a plot that does more than just take us on a wild roller coaster ride, but also tries to shed light on the question of what it means to be human.

In an age in which one form of self-improvement — doping — is ubiquitous in professional sports, one can ask what happens when trying to improve on human biology is taken to the extreme. Barry offers us one glimpse of what might be. It’s a vision both thrilling and a bit disconcerting.

Company by Max Barry

Jones is a new hire at Zephyr Holdings, a company in Seattle.  His very first task upon arriving at the office is to find out who ate his boss’s donut.  From there, Jones begins a quest to find out exactly what it is this company he works for does. I mean, what is their business.  The answer is both surprising and a bit unsettling.

Company is the third book I’ve read by Max Barry (Jennifer Government and Syrup being the other two). Company follows right on the heels of the others, exploring the relationship between the corporate world and everyday life.  In Company, Barry focuses on the employees, the worker-bees in any corporation, and their role in the company’s successes and failures.  In particular, he examines how the different aspects of the company — marketing, IT, procurement, etc — work together — or don’t — for the betterment of the company.  But, he also explores how corporate culture demands personal sacrifice from the employees in order to maximize corporate success.

Barry explores corporate culture by taking it to absurd extremes — or, at least, I hope he does.  I can’t imagine working in an environment that he describes.  At the same time, while reading Company, I couldn’t help but think that “that’s a lot like where I work.” For example, regarding the different organizations in the company and their relationships to one another, I’ve often thought that there must be someone where I work who’s sole job is to make up new forms, just so I have new ones to fill out.  Not because it leads to more productivity, or makes it easier to do my job, but just because.  Just because someone has a job to make forms.

By lampooning corporate culture, Barry exposes some of the trends that are really disturbing once you think about them.  I won’t go into details because I think it would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that by painting corporate life in an absurd extreme, Barry offers insight into just how corporate culture is affecting us, both as individuals and as a society.

I really enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, both for its entertainment value and its perspective on our market-driven society. I’d really like to hear what people who are in large, multinational corporations think about this book.  Barry himself used to work at HP. Any HPeons out there willing to give their thoughts?