Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Office Lit -- The "Beowulf" of the 21st Century

Stephen King rightly wonders in his non-fiction book On Writing why so many readers enjoy his stories involving jobs and places of work. As a person who despises corporate life, yet enjoys office-satire stories, I concur that this is a strange phenomenon.

After working a surreal year at a company called Engineering Animation, which was bought up by Unigraphics Solutions soon after I was hired, and ultimately swallowed by E.D.S. -- which led to my blessed lay-off -- I was inspired to write my own office farce, Der Komplex. My unnamed protagonist muddles through the same hyperbaric-chamber-environment I encountered at E.A.I., where there was no defined job description, no real workload, no tangible responsibilities, no measurable results; nothing but an unpleasant tingling at the top of the head that throbbed like a warning beacon.

Bill Vitanyi's slim novel Kyuboria is a first rate office satire. It follows the exploits of State employee Clint Palmer, a programmer who seeks to open and run his own business. This far-off dream suddenly seems attainable when he reads of a government sponsored grant offered to people fired from the I.T. industry (if such a grant existed, I would be eligible for it three times over). However, Clint soon learns that getting fired from his job is not so easy. In fact, it's virtually impossible. Comedy and painfully-rendered-reality ensue.

My own surreal experiences in I.T. did not end with my lay-off from E.A.I. After nine months of job hunting, I landed a technical writing job with a company in Dexter, Michigan. The company was called Creative Solutions, and I remember feeling a rush of excitement as I sought out its Web site, wondering what sort of work went on there (yeah, sorry HR wonks, I don't just "multi" submit my resumes, I mega submit, so I never have much idea -- in total -- where I've sent my C.V.s). Did they do digital animation? Innovative Web marketing? Magazine work?

Turned out Creative Solutions created and sold accounting software. My twelve-month tenure there saw me steeped in the United States Internal Revenue Service tax code. Although my colleagues were a wonderful, incongruously creative bunch, the job had me doing the devil's own busy-work. All of which was bookended by a 106-mile daily commute. The pay was good; there was even profit sharing. But the brass tacks of the job itself was like something from a nightmare: so deadly, so mercilessly boring was it that I could not concentrate on my tasks for even a few minutes without glazing over. After crashing my car, one morning, into the rear end of a tractor trailer United States Postal vehicle, I somehow managed to find a job in my own hometown.

Enter McIll. That's not the name of the company, but it's close enough. McIll designed and created computer- and Web-based training products. The job, as described to me by a recruiter, sounded terrific. The company was on the rebound from having been bought up by a larger corporation, virtually gutted, nearly eviscerated, before the larger corporation sold the place back to the two guys who had started McIll years before. It was a great local story.

And then the owners plunged a blood-guttered dagger into the side of the place -- they hired a consultant.

I'll never forget this battered, waify woman introducing herself to the company -- about fifty employees at this time -- referring to herself as, among other things, a "life coach" and corporate consultant. She met with each employee individually, and I was stunned to find during my meeting that the woman appeared barely able to read. All employees had to fill out forms about what changes they wanted to see implemented in the company. She read mine in front of me with a finger under the line she read, and her lips moving, her whispered voice stumbling over every other word.

And so the process of turning a modern, cool office space into an I.T. Wal-Mart. The dim, dark-painted upper floor where I was stationed was repainted, everyone relocated to the mainfloor where fluorescent hell beams blazed above all day long. The designers who needed to work in dim confines wore sunglasses to combat the glare. The staff was corralled into a mass of desks in an open room, reminiscent of the hangar-sized office filled with typists in the early portion of Saving Private Ryan. Right out of the Tragically Hip's "My Music at Work" video.

A grotesque woman from Chicago with a dubious PhD was hired to act as smiling, soothing taskmaster. She struck me as the type who could hand out termination papers in a Christmas card. Her helmeted hair style echoed the old advertisement line "... hair is for protection..." She stalked around the office in her power suits and assailed us over the telephone from her "home office." And soon after the "life coach" consultant went her giddy way -- doubtless literally laughing all the way to the bank -- the helmet frau instituted a domino-fall run of firings. I was among the first wave and one of the very few who actually deserved termination.

From McIll I went to Hewlett-Packard in Dearborn, Michigan. Another hyperbaric chamber; an ant-hole filled with consultants. I remember they were all named "Bill." How painfully apt, because that's all they did: bill, bill, bill the company. Three months of that and my madness meter was nearly blown.

My forays into office life have been as fantastical and surreal as any Grimm Brothers story. The array of fractured personalities, along with the unaccountably cool folk, encountered in these enchanted forests defy description. Kindred souls met in the fog by copier, in the mist of the kitchennette, in the dungeon of the conference room. Our eyes met. Our senses of humor tickled one another. Then we disappeared from one another.

And it's heartening and entertaining to see that people are telling the stories of this strange land. Max Barry is now out with Company and maybe I will one day get beyond my traumas to complete my office-novel-in-progress Swimming Under Water.

Following my absolute last venture into office-life, I wrote Geek Barn as my farewell to that brain-damaged, soul-perforating purgatory.


Pryvett Rawgers said...

Hey you base hack writer that panders to the pit, what about the Private 's musings about the corporate world on his blog, thanks for the recommendation. You spawn of capt Spalding! By the way were did you find that awesome picture of Grendal? Later

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

So, here we have a low comedian introducing gags of his own, displaying how he is on friendly terms with the pit.