by Guy Cranswick

Lulu 2010,
First collection

Guy Cranswick lives in Sydney and has also lived in London and Paris. Apart from English he speaks French and Italian -- and survival German. In addition to Corporate, he has written screenplays and a novel, My Wife, My Job, My Shoes. His short fiction has been published in Canada, the UK, Ireland, and Australia.

Read an interview with Guy Cranswick

"As Penny was discharged from the city station with her professional cohorts, she saw several people amongst the crowd who worked for the company. They filled the streets like liquid, already under the shadow of the great Schale building which dominated the river area. Its bulk conveyed a feeling of profound grandeur directly to Penny. Along with hundreds of other people, she was being drawn into the massive edifice. These bodies were moving into a larger corporation, swelling the office space and corridors and meeting rooms."

Reviewed by A.J. Kirby

Corporate, def.

1. Formed into a corporation; incorporated.
2. Of or relating to a corporation.
3. United or combined into one body.
4. Of or relating to a corporative government or political system.

Guy Cranswick's new collection of short fiction, Corporate, is at the same time a "body" of stories as well as a set of stories about the human body and what happens to it when external forces such as work, relationships, modernity and culture come into play. It is about bodies decaying, putting on weight, being shoehorned into soulless workstations. It's about the contortions bodies go through during sex, about rapidly-developing paunches. It's about shovelling food down one's throat in order to counter the bleak world which his characters inhabit.

Variously, we encounter men who are approaching or passing through mid life crises, who are approaching or have reached death. Men, and Cranswick's characters are primarily men save one obvious exception, who have been numbed to the world around them. Men who struggle to find a language to describe that world even if they are aware of it. Men who have been pushed to the brink, to the point where their bodies have given up / are about to give up.

Often these endings are karmic, and often they make for uncomfortable reading, as in the longest story in the collection, the almost novella-length Weekend, which lurches from stolen-weekend sex romp to something else entirely. Paul, the first person narrator's fall starts with his partner Anna's purchase of a mould of his erect penis in a sex shop (one kind of absence) through his sickening "punishment" of her (his complicity in her rape, when he is again absent) until he suffers his narratively justified paralysis (when his body becomes both uncontrollably present and yet absent at the same time.)

Weekend is not alone in its unflinching analysis of corporeality. A number of the stories in here are rather unpalatable and the collection is certainly not one for the more squeamish of readers. Having said that, there is an undeniable quality to Cranswick's writing and something admirable about the way in which he refuses to back down from his confrontation of bodily truths; his characters shit themselves in bed, suffer terrible indigestion, cramps, insomnia. He holds the gaze of death for far longer than many writers would dare.

As a general rule, the previously published stories (and there are three of them, Complete (With Notes) which featured in Invisible Ink, Still, which featured on the website, and Vorgetfuhle which featured in Walnut Literary Review) are stronger than the previously unpublished, which stands to reason, as some sort of quality control has been placed on the stories. However, this is not your stereotypical self-published book either. Cranswick is, by all accounts, a very forward-thinking writer. He has, for example, eschewed the traditional "path to publication" as suffered by many a writer and has instead embraced new technologies. He's used, for example, the bit-torrent websites (famously used for illegal music downloads) to allow as many readers as he can to encounter his work and has spread his name liberally across the internet. He's a shrewd customer and certainly one we can expect to hear a lot more from in the future.

And if the final story of the collection, the title story, is anything to go by, what we'll hear will be great. Corporate is by far the strongest piece in the collection, the one which ties all the themes together and adds coherency to the whole. It is a story which takes for a theme the hostile takeover, the incorporation, of human body into a larger edifice, the faceless, shapeless mass which is the corporate world of work.

It is the story of Penny (the one brilliant exception to the "mostly men" rule) who works for the behemoth multinational Schale Company (who have "offices in Houston, Azerbidjan (sic.), Capetown, Istanbul, Bogota, Tokyo, Sydney, Freetown and several other cities".) So big is Schale it could "proclaim that almost no one could pass a day without using one of its products." And into this gaping capitalist maw bodies, like Penny's, are subsumed, consumed, crushed, and then re-packaged to fit. This is a place in which people become a number, a function, one of the "forty-one thousand" workers worldwide. Here, the world of work stereotypes people, massages all individuality out of them, leaving us nothing but a homogenous mess. It's both a bitingly humorous satire and devastatingly chilling almost-too-close-to-the-bone account of working conditions today.

Corporate is delivered in a series of emails, and at first look the email style seems to jar. However, the deeper one delves into this murky world, the more we can see that there is something very clever going on here stylistically. Workers at Schale can't get outside the box of corporate-speak and ways of working. These are messages from "Communications Management", or from Big Brother. It is the only language they have to hand to describe the environment which closes them in from every side.

Over the course of this non-linear story, we discover more about Penny and how "the machine" acted upon her. We learn about her overly complicated recruitment process which contains psychological profiling the FBI would be proud of:
"She was nervous before the test: what if they discovered something embarrassing? She was reassured that no answer was the right answer but she doubted it, somehow she must find out the right answers or she might lose her opportunity."
And then, when she's called to be offered the job, she whoops with joy, which she knows is the expected and therefore "right response." Already she is being shaped, pigeon-holed.

She enters the world of work and quickly falls into the expected routine; everyday the 7.55 commute, everything in her life neatly compartmentalised, like a spreadsheet. She is inducted (brainwashed).into the world of Company-speak:
"Unusually in such rational circumstances poetic metaphor was spoken such that, an opportunity was a window; fruit was typically low-hanging; or roads, paths and tracks were regular choices for any decision."<
And starts to crane her body into clothes so she fits in:
"She knew it was not necessarily a good thing to be tall but she believed she achieved a better proportion between her upper body and legs when she was in high heels."
And then there's the gym. She tells her friends the gym is "a form of punishment". She feels a pressure, a moral urge to exercise, despite the fact the running hurts her knees. She sets herself work-like targets in and outside the gym: "Rules could be applied to everything; there was no part of life that did not have or require a rule to make it more pleasant." And starts to scorn people "who deviated from her own behaviour", and who don't play by the same rules.

It's all about control; Cranswick creates within Schale a hierarchy based on structures and memes which to the outsider seem vaguely ridiculous and patently funny:
"Plain biscuits were permitted for most of Penny's meetings. Only the most senior executives could request biscuits with cream filled centres or a chocolate outer coating."
Nevertheless Penny seems happy. Life is chugging along. Until Cranswick jars us out of our comfort zone by starting to insert emails we've already read into the narrative. At first, most readers will read this as a mistake, but it starts to happen so frequently over the closing pages that it becomes obvious something deeper is at play here. Cranswick deftly suggests the mind-numbing mundanity of this commuta-existence, the soullessness of the workstations and Penny's colleagues through sheer repetition. The repetition hardens and becomes a powerful train of dissatisfaction. Slowly, we begin to learn that something is not right with Penny; the oblique references to her having to move away and her marital break-up. Her obsessive compulsion. The reader starts to see a very different Penny, one whose body and mind have been bent all out of shape.

Corporate is a collection which is a must-read for anyone who works in a similar multinational company, a salient warning, if one were needed, about what can happen to us if we allow our true selves to be eaten up by the nine to five.

Read a short story by Guy Cranswick in the Walnut Literary Review

A.J.Kirby is the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). His short fiction was most recently featured in the Legend Press anthology Ten Journeys.

A J Kirby's other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

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