Once brilliantly parodied in ‘Black Books’ as a lifeless entity which consists of other pretending to know what they are doing, it is a vacuum of bureaucracy, playground rivalries and ever shrinking boundaries between work life and personal life.
In other words, the perfect setting for a novel.
Narrated exclusively through the medium of Slack conversations, Several People… is set in an unnamed public relations firm in New York City which has taken on the job of rehabilitating the image of a dog food company who have recalled tins due to allegations about poison getting into the food. While various discussions involving work and personal life occur, it becomes obvious that Gerald, a fairly non-descript employee, has been working exceptionally hard over recent weeks.
His soul has become trapped in Slack. But will anyone believe him?
And will the Slackbot be able to give him a proper sunrise?
And what exactly does a dusty stick GIF represent?
As you can guess, the plot itself is the standard ‘man vs machine’ trope, which has been updated for the Covid era, asking questions about living to work (as opposed to working to live), consumerism, the boundaries between consumer and product, the fracturing of genuine communication in the digital era and the sort of petty gossiping that seems to operate as fuel for highflyers. All of which it explores with a deft touch.
Writing a book based around Slack group chats and making them engaging is no easy feat, so Kasulke must be commended for this and making it look so easy. The characters are suitably two dimensional and this reflects in their self-obsessed views on the world that masquerade as hip talk. Every petty act (from bitching about office desks to speculating on the sex life of others) oozes bored frustration and makes their two-dimensional nature all too real.
It's easy to imagine Gerald being such a character and indeed there are hints throughout that he was living life on auto pilot beforehand. His journey, with many a conversation with the Slackbot, from shelter to enlightenment is something that, ironically, doesn’t drive the narrative (maybe a deliberate move as a telling indictment of that world) but keeps the reader engaged regardless.
However, there are problems which stop it from being an excellent read, and they all occur towards the end of the book. One is an issue of morality. Although I can’t mention it without spoiling the narrative, let’s just say I’m surprised that the types who are offended over Sleeping Beauty being kissed while she’s unconscious haven’t voiced their ire over this particular moment. The other problem is the ending, which isn’t a million miles away from the old Star Trek trope of “reversing the polarity”.
With an extra 150 pages (and a few revisions), this could have been the 21st century equivalent of William Gibson writing American Psycho. Instead, we get an engaging but patchy novel. Better luck next time.
Calvin Kasulke, 2021, Several People are Typing. Hodder Studio. ISBN-13: 978-1529358346
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.