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Title: "Company"
Author: Max Barry
Publication Date: February 2006, by Doubleday, a division of (what else?) Random House
ISBN: 0-385-51439-5 (Hardcover)

Max Barry's third novel, "Company", follows the career of a protagonist known only as Jones (for reasons other than the obvious, anonymous-cog-in-the-machine sort of way) as he works his way up the ladder at Zephyr International.

Zephyr is a distinctly odd company - none of its employees have the slightest idea what the company actually does and are dissuaded from trying to find out, missing donuts result in lay-offs and no one has seen the CEO in, well...come to think of it, no one's ever seen the CEO.

It sounds cynical and dystopian, a satirical riff on business and marketing and all the things that Barry likes to poke holes in and the novel is believable from that angle, but the plot suddenly careens down a shadowy alley about a third of the way through and does so in such a way as to make the whole setup eerily plausible. I love giving away fascinating plot devices and the like, but I'm going to lay off this time and keep the fun stuff to myself.

Regardless of the insanity of the initial setup, Company is more sedate in style than Barry's previous two efforts, "Jennifer Government" and "Syrup". While those novels leaned heavily on a rapid-fire, manic delivery and an admittedly charming aura of befuddledness, Barry's main character in this endeavor is a bit more worldly, more knowledgeable - his eyes are open and he questions what he sees without really letting what he sees get to him. It's a nice change, but Barry can't quite pull it off for the duration, and his longer than usual sections of prose start to drag after awhile. He gets preachy at times and, while the points he makes aren't wrong, it's still distracting.

The novel's worth a read - Barry has this way of selling totally implausible situations without forcing them, and his particularly liquid form of storytelling is a nice change from the ordinary.

On a note utterly unrelated in any way to whacked out contemporary fiction: Not to pick on Consuela's synopsis of the plot of Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical, but that version of the way the plot runs is awfully treacly and over-simplistic.

If you really wanted to condense the plot it'd go like this: a man stands at a closed door, thinks for thirty seconds or so, smiles, turns and walks away. The play itself happens in his head over the course of those thirty seconds.

That doesn't really tell us much, does it? Here's an explicated version:

Bobby is standing outside the door to an apartment where all of his friends are waiting for him to throw him a surprise birthday party. He knows it's a surprise birthday party because they've done it every single goddamned year for as long as he's known all of them and it drives him nuts. But Bobby's the classic definition of a Nice Guy, so he puts up with it.

As he stands there, he thinks about his friends and the times they've spent together. He's the single guy in the crowd, having watched them all pair up and split off over the years, leaving him as the best friend or, on one notable occasion, the best man. Everyone around him, all the married people, assume he's lonely as hell and, (again with the Nice Guy thing) he agrees with them because it's easier that way. He's expected to be lonely, so. The play is a series of vignettes that Bobby remembers while standing at that door that focus on his friends' attempts to, you know, 'Fix' him; to marry him off, in other words.

The last song in the show, "Being Alive," starts with him pondering what it is to be in love ("Someone to hold you too close...") and then, through one of the subtlest lyrical twists in Broadway history, changes into a plea ("Somebody hold me too close...") for love to find him.

But here's the thing: he's lying. He's lying through his teeth. Bobby does what he's always done - he says what his friends want to hear, that yes, he's lonely and that yes, he wants to be loved and that yes, he'd be more than happy to go on yet another date with one of the crazy women his friends know. He realizes through that song that nothing he's done for the last decade has been for him.

And with that the play snaps back to reality, to Bobby standing outside the door to the apartment with the same old people and the same old monotonous routine, and in a revelatory moment he breaks the cycle - he walks away from the door.

And people say Broadway is trite.