This week we break from tolling the Doomsday bell for something a bit more comical. Jack Dougherty’s Corporate America is a novel reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s Jpod or Christopher Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking. Somewhat ironically, it is also the first book I’ve reviewed so far that I can picture as a traditionally published book: ironic because Dougherty both lambastes and lampoons the publishing industry and its constituents. (Have I used that alliteration before? I feel like I’ve used that alliteration before…) In any case, the novel follows protagonist Francis Scanlon, a would-be author turned corporate shill who discovers that selling his soul to corporate America is nowhere near as painful as the “ruthlessly competitive, insecure, Schadenfreudian” postgraduates back home might have him believe.
First off, let me state that Francis is the worst sort of person: a man who, by 28-odd years of age, has gained no real insight into the world or himself yet presumes to write about it. Faced with evidence that his opinions about corporate life are dead wrong, he shifts them almost immediately, which might be a laudable trait if it were accompanied by a dawning self awareness or some lofty ideal of impartiality. Instead, this change of heart is testament to the character’s utter lack of a foundation for his beliefs. What this means is that you can approach the novel in one of two ways. You can choose to subscribe to Francis’s cynical view of everything and every one, or you can laugh about his paranoid assessment of everything and everyone. I found it impossible not to blend both methods, but then I probably count as one of those “insecure, Schadenfreudian” wannabes. My approach may have been a defence mechanism.
It’s often stated that cheaters assume everyone else is cheating. To some extent, I think that’s what’s going on with Francis. He is a a cynical arsehole, who assumes that everyone else must be the same, but that some people hide it better than others. All this to say that Francis targets all groups of society at one point or another. If you dislike being the target of cynical humour, this is probably not the ideal book for you. Whether you’re an environmental activist, a Danielle Steele fan,or a business major, your pet group will become the butt of a joke at some point.
You should also be prepared for literary references. As a book guy, Francis spouts a lot of Modernist and/or Russian literary references. His heroes are white heterosexual men – the sort of authors that David Gilmour would approve of. Perhaps because Canadian English classes focus on Canadian and British authors, the majority of the references were unfamiliar to me, so I cannot state whether he quotes or alludes to any of these works ironically. However, I chose to read them as a satirical element; a mere literary gesture, meant more as commentary about Francis himself than to add nuance to the plot of Corporate America.
Okay, so analysis aside, what didn’t I like?
First off, there are some minor errors that should have been caught by the copyeditor, and while they are not overwhelming (I caught about four in total) they are prevalent enough to detract from the story. Self-pub or not, you need to catch these things before submitting your book to Amazon.
Secondly, there were times when Francis went into so much detail regarding the clothing he was wearing or the furniture in his office or the food offered at a meeting that I started to get American Psycho flashbacks (with perhaps a hint of the Shopaholic series thrown in). While this may have been an intentional homage, I was looking forward to never reading a three paragraph description of a character’s suit again, and the instant a character gives me Pat Bateman vibes is the instant I start to dislike them all the more.
Lastly and most importantly, Francis’s rise to power is far too meteoric to be realistic, and while this is part of the satirical nature of the book, it actually interferes with the comedy. To me, the funniest sections of the novel occur when Francis is struggling, purely because the tactics employed by him and his rivals are so extravagant. Once Francis starts succeeding at something, he becomes both kinder to strangers and pettier towards his underlings. Eventually it starts to read a bit like revenge fantasy, with Francis proving himself superior to his ex-classmates as well as the corporate bureaucrats he works with. Instead of laughing at his wit, you laugh at his utter lack of self awareness, then begin to wish failure on him for being so unaware.
There’s a great deal to be said for the “Gary Stu”, and there are times when Francis threatens to tread into this territory except that while the Gary Stu is usually considered too idealized, Francis doesn’t bother embodying any ideal. He simply gets treated as if he does. I suspect that this is the point and that Dougherty is using Francis to make a point about the corporate “heroes”, but it doesn’t make the character any less insufferable.
So, what are my overall thoughts then? I’m going to break with my usual star system this week because I feel that Corporate America is one of those books that could have broad appeal even if it fails to appeal to me as a reader. With that in mind…
Overall rating: 4.5/5
Personal rating: 3/5
Recommended if: You’re a fan of corporate hijinx novels and you’re able to watch someone “kill your darlings”.
Skip it if: You favour gentle comedy; cynicism is over rated. Alternately, it pains you to see a jerk come out on top.