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Bound in a cubicle's nutshell

  • Jun 14, 2010
This novelist likes tales of downscale academics, overeducated drones downsized to cubicles. "The Lecturer's Tale" ended with a Grand Guignol collapse rivaling the fall of the House of Usher; "Publish & Perish" gathered a trilogy of cautionary stories about the perils of the tenure-tracked, and "Next" (see my review) most recently extends his purview into his favorite protagonist, another laid-low Ph.D. in English Lit doomed to redundancy.

Hynes as a Michigan-born resident of Austin, Texas, carries considerable bile for his adopted state. East Texas, here Lamar, comes off even worse. Hynes captures the relentless heat, the accents, the cuisine, the soulless sprawl and municipal torpor. For Paul Trilby, he enters a temp realm working for the government, and seems to continue his downward spiral.

"This is the circle of hell reserved for Kitty Drowners and Failed Academics, an eternity of meaningless work in an empty office in an eternal twilight." (130) The plot drags him into this underworld, above the acoustic tiles and below the florescent lights, the hums of hard drives and the tyranny of a pair of wonderfully caricatured bosses. Rick speaks in clich├ęd malapropisms: "No use crying over burnt bridges." Olivia's a "steel magnolia" former cheerleader full of honey-toned bile and dyed-blonde malice.

As with his send-up of Gaia Markets (=Whole Foods) in "Next," Hynes likes to skewer corporate targets. This time it's a rousing chapter set at Headlights (=Hooters) which manages to incorporate the snobbery of Paul (ex-husband of a gender theorist no less) with the sociobiological explanations of how men must now compete not "for women" but "against women" in the workplace. Hynes adroitly makes this scene both comic and smart, making fun of the men who mouth it even as he integrates ideas that invigorate the plot.

As with his earlier fiction, Hynes chafes against the confinement of his smart, if nebbishy, anti-heroes in their predicaments. Karaoke night is the least of his punishments. As the novel builds up, the "Norton Anthology," subversively re-editing textbooks to please both San Francisco and Dallas constituencies, John Wayne, SUV's, and barbecue-- this being Texas-- all merit attention.

Still, Paul's beset by time-clocking idiots, bound as he is in the nutshell of cubicle hell. He lives at what he calls Angry Loner Motel amidst figures resembling the Snopes of Faulkner infamy. His ex-wife's drowned cat resurrects to haunt his television, as only feline-themed programs are aired on it. His girlfriend-- and Hynes again provides us with a strong, appealing, sensitive and sassy female lover-antagonist-comrade in Callie-- shakes him out of self-pity, if fitfully and sporadically. She even makes Oklahoma sound better than Texas.

"'Aw, honey,' he said, 'I'm an intellectual. I have to think about everything.'" sums up a familiar protagonist. As in "Next," and "Lecturer's Tale," he departs from the academic-corporate satire in the last fifty or so pages. He seeks a more action-oriented, over-the-top ending once again.

This draws on underworld journeys and pulls this novel into the fantastic. It recalls H.G. Wells, whom Paul's been reading at work, and I'm not sure if it entirely works. The return to normalcy as seen via certain co-workers appears too neatly inserted into the mess. Hynes favors pulling out all the stops and having his novels near their end swirl into whatever he churns up.

Arguably, Hynes has prepared us gradually for its Wellesian revelations. Hynes chafes at genre conventions and like his protagonists, knows his literary tropes well enough to manipulate them-- if maybe too relentlessly-- into mash-ups. It's an enjoyable diversion into the subversive for audiences who feel exploited, underpaid, and far too educated for their daily routine.

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John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #51
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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Paul Trilby is still haunted by the ghost of Charlotte, the cat he drowned in "Queen of the Jungle" (included in Hynes's 1997 story collection,Publish and Perish), in this hilarious supernatural sendup of office life. An affair having destroyed his marriage and promising academic career, Paul now temps as a tech writer in the General Services Division of the Texas Department of General Services (TxDoGS) in the Austin-like city of Lamar. One hot summer morning, stuck in traffic, he has an encounter with a peculiar homeless man who repeats a question from H.G. Wells'sIsland of Doctor Moreau, "Are we not men?" This is but the first of a series of uncanny incidentsâ€"a corpse in a cubicle no one appears to notice, a recycling bin that seems to have no bottomâ€"that dog Paul at TxDoGS. The romance he strikes up with Callie, the appealingly goofy company "mail girl," provides the novel's emotional center. When the feckless Paul is put to the ultimate test, a Faustian bargain with zombies to surrender his soul and sacrifice Callie for a free ride at TxDoGS, readers will be on the edge of their seats wondering whether he'll do the right thing. Amusing incidentals include the subversive sentences Paul pens for a textbook and the cat-related fare that is all Charlotte allows him to watch on TV. While the office may not be quite as juicy a subject for satire as the academic world skewered in the author's ...
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ISBN-10: 0312319665
Author: James Hynes
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Picador

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