Then again, I was also very young. And in the years between now and then, my tastes and expectations have grown.
Writing the absurd is a knife-edge dance. Done badly, it can be merely silly or trite. Done well, it is more gut-punch true than anything we would call realistic. Like irony, the absurd requires a baseline of real-life experience in order to understand the perspective. Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos, the new work by Christine Sneed, is firmly within the tradition of Barthelme, Coover, Barth, and Sorrentino. It’s also updated for 2022. Every single page is a joy to read.
The novel begins with an interoffice memorandum from Judith Kemper, vice president of marketing at Quest Industries, a maker of collapsible office products. Judith writes that she’s lost a cardigan:
[I]f this information leads to its recovery, I promise to give you a reward of your choosing, up to $ 10 in value. I do wish it could be more, but unfortunately, my husband Cornwall and I are on a tight budget this month, due to expenses incurred when a maple tree fell on our car last week during a thunderstorm and a ginkgo tree, unbelievably, fell on our roof less than an hour later!
What are the odds? And what on heaven and earth is going on with our karma? (Not that I know what exactly karma is, but it does seem as if something strange is going on here.)
This is followed by a memo from “Mid-Level Management” to clarify the in-office footwear policy: “Tap shoes are not permitted under any circumstances. Clogs are permitted, but only on Wednesdays and Thursdays during months that include the letter ‘y.’ […] Earth shoes are permitted for employees of Scandinavian descent with bunions. ” Another memo about workplace decorum covers such issues as the employee kitchen and an orientation slideshow about which we learn that “[a]ll employees, regardless of rank, seniority, or general misanthropy, will be required to attend. “
And while the general silliness of these memos is entertaining, they are really just the backdrop. Characters and plot lines do develop. The IRS moves in for an audit, which seems to be an impossible task given the company’s routine acceptance of forged receipts and the fact that the auditors are locked inside a conference room by Quest personnel. In order to boost office morale, employees are encouraged to share “Stories of Personal Triumph.” The higher-ups install a matchmaking program, and the first couple involved sends intimate details of each date. “We had much more fun on this date than on the second,” Hannah-Louise Schmidt and Bill Dubonski write in a memo with the subject line “Matchmaking Update # 3,”
and Bill’s ankle, fortunately, due to many tedious applications of ice packs and a special poultice his sister (who once dated a Navajo medicine man and almost had his baby, but sadly, that didn’t work out) had sent to him, was like new. We were even in the mosh pit for about thirty seconds and it was totally invigorating! […]
We went back to Hannah-Louise’s place after the Moby concert where we had oral sex for about twenty minutes.
The Wellness Committee puts out a survey that no one answers. Ken Crickshaw Jr., a former coroner, decides to offer free medical advice. Company president Bryan Stokerly sends out memos with the subject line “Important Discoveries,” in which we learn that “[p]arallel parking is a very useful skill, especially in urban areas ”and that“[p]lastic is the devil’s work and if you break it down to its molecular components, you will find, coincidentally, the faces of both Jesus and Vince Lombardi in its molecular patterns. “
Of course, the epistolary novel is nothing new. And it makes perfect sense that such a text, in 2022, would be told in the form of emailed memos in a corporate environment. The 19th-century version, however, was an avenue for characters to reveal their deepest secrets and heart-truths. It was an approach that allowed for revelation and insight, for the souls of the men and women writing the letters to be expressed. These were personal missives, from one individual to another. As readers, we became invested not in the literary device of the letters but in what the letters revealed.
The corporate memo is the opposite. The memos in this book often come from nameless and faceless entities: “Upper-Level Management,” “Mid-Level Management,” “Lower-Level Management.” Other memos come from “President Bryan Stokerly, Esq.”; “Ken Crickshaw Jr., Office Manager, Matchmaker, Probation Officer, Corporate Coroner, and Vice President of Employee Wellness”; Bart ‘Buddha’ Kleinfeld, IT; and a variety of others. And while they are entertaining in the sense that these are the sort of memos we all wish we could write someday, none of them get attached to a character in a way that reveals something essential about them.
The memos to establish workplace drama. Collapsible paper cutters become an issue when clients start removing fingers. Candy consumption needs to be regulated, to the point that Mid-Level Management sends a memo with a Candy Policy Violations Wall of Shame, detailing who has been caught with what. To wit: “On Monday at approximately 2:15 PM, Ginny Snell was apprehended with an open bag of Bit o ‘Honey in the hallway outside the women’s bathroom.” The Stories of Personal Triumph reveal a desperate community. Yes, it makes perfect sense in 2022 for the epistolary novel to feature a disembodied, disconnected, alienated point of view. The mind-truth of this book is spot on target. The heart-truth, however, is astray.
Writing the absurd is akin to a performance piece. It’s brilliant in the short form. As a short story or novella, this book could have been something brilliant. The problem with Please Be Advised is that it’s a novel, and once the basic joke is established, it becomes old fast. I found myself reading the second half thinking, Yes, I get it – let’s get on with it. No single character takes over the narrative. There’s nothing for me to invest in other than the flourishes. The book is not overly long, but its freshness fades well before the end.
Christine Sneed is the author of several previous novels, and her shorter work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and other distinguished venues. She has received the Grace Paley Prize, among several other honors. She teaches in the MFA program at Regis University and is faculty director of Northwestern University’s graduate creative writing program. So, she clearly knows what she’s doing. Every page of Please Be Advised is funny or ironic or sharp. Every single page brings to mind the joy of reading the earlier crew of metafictional absurdists. But the whole does not exceed the sum of the parts.
W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is the author of 12 books of narrative nonfiction, as well as a photographer.