Sunday, May 28, 2006


I was sent a review copy of the book Institutionalized after I commented on a review of it on the Auspicious Dragon bookblog. I have never been sent a review copy of a book before, and I'm not sure how useful my review will be. However, I will do my best. (Incidentally, their site seems to be down, but you can find it on Amazon.

I am late with this review, because I read the book just before semester started, which was at least 7 weeks ago, and then got caught up with the madness of work and never had time to sit down and think about what to write. I did take notes. I wonder what I did with them? (I do not write on books, and now I'm thinking that perhaps I should have.)

Institutionalized is set in the world of corporate America, a world with which I am not familiar at all. For this reason I was a little lost some of the time, but that did not get in the way of the story. From all I have seen and read, the American corporate world really is as full of absurdity as the novel suggests. And the novel is delightfully absurd. It is office politics taken to insane extremes, and I’m sure people in corporate environments will find it terrifyingly and hilariously relevant. As a Kiwi in Japan, having no contact with the American corporate world at all, I found it funny but was not able to judge how accurate it was. I suspect it is, though.

The main problem I had, then, was with the lack of context, which was, mostly, MY lack of context, not the book's. The cover offers the following clue:

From a renegade team of international corporate surveillance experts comes a behind-the-scenes, riveting tale of one of America's biggest corporations struggling to bring best practice to life in a cruelly competitive businessworld.

This helped me, but not much. When I started reading I wanted to know who the surveillance experts were and for whom they were working, and why, but that information was not forthcoming. I found this confusing, because I did not realize that the information was missing intentionally, as a part of the plot. I thought I’d just missed it because I didn’t understand what was going on, or have a clear idea of the context of the story. It wasn’t until I got to the end and all was revealed that I realized I was not supposed to know at the beginning, and it wasn’t just my cluelessness. I would understand the whole story better if I read it again, and I have to confess I was lost at first.

It didn't matter all that much, really. I got caught up in the story anyway. It is a fun read. I found it difficult to keep the characters sorted in my head for the first half of the book, mostly because of my confusion caused by the lack of context and because of the unfamiliar (to me) job titles, which I'm sure mean something, but not being in that particular world I'm not sure what. What does a Chief Operating Officer do, for example? An Executive Vice President? I'm sure these are meaningful labels, but as a clueless reader I found it hard to keep the characters separate, much as I do when I read business reports or press releases in the newspaper. What are these people supposed to be DOING? It is as hard to tell, because most of them seem to spend most of their time plotting against each other in various hilarious ways, or spouting nonsense.

But that is, of course, the whole point of the story.

My original comment on the Auspicious Dragon bookblog was concerning the accents of the Oriental characters in the book, who are Chinese but who, it was pointed out in the review, spoke with Japanese accents. From the examples quoted of this, even as Japanese accents they were not very convincing, and I explained why in my comment so will not go into that here. I had hoped that I would be able to offer suggestions about how better to portray a Chinese accent, but I can't. I have Chinese students, but they are not fluent speakers and sometimes they have picked up pronunciation problems from their Japanese teachers of English, which complicates things. Also, I just don’t have enough experience.

My opinion is that the writers need to either consult an expert (which I am not) or listen extensively to Chinese speakers of English as a foreign language to find out exactly what they do sound like. Simply switching ls and rs does not work.

But that is a minor flaw.

The book is funny. Not laugh-out-loud-funny, at least not for me, but more satirical-grin-funny. It covers ten weeks in a plastics company called Institutionalized Industries. There is a megalomaniacal CEO who identifies with Napoleon, a bunch of insanely ambitious people working under him who constantly plot and plan to bring each other down, and massive doses of corporate-speak which are almost but not quite unbelievable. There were aspects of that which reminded me more than a little of Japanese academia - the politicking and backstabbing, the power games, the emphasis on looking good and sounding good with no real substance under the words and images (you should see the promotional materials at the places I work!), and that made me wonder how realistic it is. After all, academia, in Japan at least, does not have to answer to shareholders, but corporations do. Can the people at the top of big corporations really be that incompetent? Can certifiable lunatics even get to the top like that?

The frightening thing is that maybe they can. Maybe the most effective top brass are the ones who interfere the least, and if they are constantly clawing past and over each other and producing insane memos and getting caught up in New Age-type nonsense about 're-empowering and re-involving' the corporate culture, maybe it is a GOOD thing, because keeps them occupied while the people who do the actual work to get their jobs done. And this book lampoons them very effectively.

In the end there was really only one major character it was possible to like. Halfway through the book, when I was still fairly confused, I didn’t think I would buy a sequel. I didn’t feel involved enough. But in the end I discovered I wanted to know what happened to him next, and how he would navigate the Machiavellian world he (almost accidentally) inhabits.

There will be a sequel, apparently. I will buy it.


Potentilla said...

They might even send you a review copy!

I asked my sister (lives in HK) about the accent thing and she thought it had something to do with dark "L" (not a Chinese sound at all) and in any case depended on which Chinese language or version of Mandarin you were a native speaker of.

The people at the top are not in reality as mad as in the book (nearly always; there might be a few really mad ones). It's more that the part of what they do that is visible to their underlings is the more mad-looking part, like the vision and values voicemails. If you meet them in smaller groups making decisions about real business issues, they appear much saner, if sometimes rather over-competitive (but not always).

The reason the mad-looking part is the visible part is because the top people are trying to think of a way to do the impossible, which is to explain as much as they can about the business to its staff, without breaching any stock exchange rules or risking anything commercially confidential. And there are an awful lot of staff, most of whom don't have enough experience to understand and also few of whom put much effort into understanding. The top guy is very busy so he employs HR and PR people to help with staff communications and they spend ages writing his scripts, which always end up being dumbed-down.

Why am I writing an essay about this in your comments? Sorry.

The Editter said...

A friend who had only ever worked as a teacher used to ask her office-working friends "what do you do?" and we'd say "I'm a project manager/communications officer/policy analyst". And she'd say "no, what do actually do? so we'd say "oh we're responsible for this, and contribute to this...". So she'd say "no, when you get to the office, what do you do? You turn your computer on and then what do you actually do?"

Me? Well I check my email and bloglines of course! :)