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Book Review - The Consultant

25 Oct 2015

The Consultant
The Consultant, by Bentley Little (2015)
If you're a corporate employee reading Bentley Little's latest offering in the horror genre, you may not pick up on the anti-corporate subtext that gives this steak its flavor. And if you truly hate the horror genre you may not want to read this book, but if you have any background at all in the corporate world you may end up like a highway rubbernecker examining a grisly tableau: horrified but transfixed. In the case of Little's new book, The Consultant, the real horror comes from realizing you are already living and working in a world much like this story's barely fictional setting.

The novel centers around the hiring of a top-level management consultant to help software firm CompWare regain its mojo and stock market momentum. CompWare has a mélange of offerings - office-style applications and games, being sold by a unified sales staff - that bog down the firm's profitability and muddy its vision. The path should be obvious but in a moment of weakness the founder and CEO hires BFG Consulting for advice - and BFG, largely personified by a single Consultant, takes over.

Perhaps I enjoyed this turn more than the average person because in 1992 I was employed by a firm called BSG Consulting, and it was an awful experience. It was the first time I witnessed both sides in action together; the last time, also as a Consultant, I watched my firm, a French-owned consulting behemoth, feed off the corpse of Enron as it collapsed in 2001. I even watched the second World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 in real time, on a flat-screen TV in an Enron elevator, the first having occurred while I waited in line at the Starbucks in the lobby. I knew as I watched it was the foreshadowing of Enron's future, which indeed filed for bankruptcy three months later. The ending of The Consultant is no less momentous. But in the process ...

In the process The Consultant takes over like a banana republic dictator. He quickly cows management by either destroying them (physically and spiritually) or by making them satanic minions. Soon he is issuing a series of dictums and actions that would seem familiar to workers from an earlier corporate age -
  • Only certain types of footwear allowed
  • Only certain colors allowed for clothing
  • Every worker is followed by a consultant who logs their every movement into a networked tablet computer, including exactly how many minutes they arrive late or leave early; how much time they spend in the bathroom; how much time they spend on each task, or on no task at all; and so on.
  • Monitoring of the home lives of the top executives. I enjoyed this one because Ross Perot used to do this to EDS executives, as did John Rockefeller to Standard Oil executives before him. It's a golden oldie.
Eventually people are targeted for layoff, but instead of being fired they die under unbelievable circumstances that bring to mind the Final Destination movie series. Targets appear to be chosen based on their hostility to the new regime, not their usefulness to the firm, which means a lot of the best people are dying - or if they resign, committing equally horrific suicides. All of these actions might be seen as standard fare for a horror fan, but if you're a corporate wage slave you realize you live in a very similar world. In fact two such deaths occurred after the collapse of Enron, including a "suicide" that took place in a car in the middle of a street.

But wait, there's more! BFG specializes in the new forms of corporate imprisonment as well as the old ones, and manages to blend the old and new forms together. Additional developments include --
  • Universal non-random drug, alcohol, and mental health testing
  • People monitors replaced with cameras using directional microphones - everywhere
  • Cameras in the bathrooms used to claim toilet paper wastage and theft
  • Weight watchers meetings for overweight employees
  • Requiring "overweight" employees to lose weight
  • Creating an employees cafeteria in order to control the time spent eating, and to force employees to eat healthy - and deducting the costs of the meals from paychecks of all employees, including those who bring their own lunch.
  • Locking all external doors during lunch hour so that no one can go elsewhere to eat
  • Holding required executive retreats with no content except for physically threatening undertones
  • Changing employee work hours for no reason other to impose control
  • Encouraging executives and managers to marry, so they will be stable.
  • Encouraging subordinates to stay single, so they can work longer hours.
How many of these sound like your workplace, or of someone you know?

Bentley Little has been writing in the horror genre for twenty years, with stories that follow a familiar pattern but with fresh characters most of the time (he does not always succeed). If you're a Little fan you will like this book as much or more than any of them. I put it right up there with The Association, about a homeowners association from Hell - literally. If you're a college student check out The University, about a university from - you get the idea.

If you're a corporate employee who reads about these conditions and doesn't see what all the fuss is about, you're working exactly where you should be. If you think you recognize yourself in one of the characters and that worries you, it's time to find a new job, but you probably knew that already. But if all you do is switch to another corporation that hires consultants - or worse yet, join an actual consulting firm - will you be any better off? Read The Consultant and give it some serious thought.

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