Please be advised: the "Workflow Specialist," here at Quest Industries, has concerns. "Outdated paper files," he warns us, have left most cubicles "filled with highly flammable corporate twaddle ... certifiable fire hazards." High time employees got rid of their "paper flotsam," but a reader knows better. Without that flotsam, we wouldn't have this delightful grab-bag of a fiction, American business at its most bonkers, told entirely via interoffice memoranda.
The novel is Christine Sneed's third, and she's also published award-winning short fiction, but she's never taken such a freewheeling approach. Speaking through the communiques that plague office life, she develops a choral plague story; it's a very bad year for Quest, based somewhere in Chicago and, till now, "the world's leading purveyor of collapsible ... office supplies." As the company's troubles mount, too, we learn to recognize its most distinctive voices.
The CEO has a lot to say, naturally. A British ex-pat, the kind of snoot who signs his name "Esquire," his pretensions can't hide what a bad job he's doing, between his fondness for the bottle and his belief in things like forest nymphs. Then there's new hire Ken Crickshaw, who seems to add a new title with every memo. His swift climb through the ranks, like the CEO's tumble, has its dotty, disturbing elements. In particular, Crickshaw never clears up the nasty questions about his past.
That's the plot, a classic switcheroo, but gone crazy. Sneed has seized on the way personal quirks sneak into our professional lives and blown it sky-high, giving us memos rife with sex, slapstick and magic. One sequence of correspondence, intended to raise company morale, gets into grotesque details of "personal triumph." Another tracks an attempt at "office matchmaking," in which the woman of the couple plainly doesn't believe there's such a thing as over-sharing, or for that matter fidelity.
The effects aren't solely comic, either. Sneed also works in eerie moments, with ghost sightings and ghastly odors, and also poignant touches. A good man's humiliation becomes a public spectacle, and a "personal triumph" reveals a pathetic life.
Overall, however, reading "Please Be Advised" feels like a riding a skip-stone. Each splash-down is followed by another liftoff, further wackiness. The problem with such material is obvious, the lack of emotional development, and this damaged one or two of the longer memos, which need some spine of feeling. But by and large, I much enjoyed the Looney Tunes specifically cited, with a nifty reference to "ACME Corp."
Even the grim attentions of the IRS, the inevitable company audit, winds up stuffing those bean-counters into the clown car with everyone else. The Revenuers get the final word, and it plainly implies that, while this "collapsible office" may have collapsed, its human carnival will gambol on. Now that deserves a memo.
John Domini's latest book is the memoir "The Archeology of a Good Ragù."
Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos
By: Christine Sneed.
Publisher: 713 Press, 255 pages, $19.99.