“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

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“The Mezzanine” by Nicholson Baker (1988)

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mezzanine“At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned toward the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top.”

Given the size of the topic I covered last (that is, the International Space Station), and the post before that being about one of the biggest and bestselling books of all time, I figured it was time to get smaller. How about an office in America? Yeah, that’s pretty small. How about the lobby of that office? Fine, but can we go smaller? How about that lobby during one man’s lunchbreak? OK, but any smaller? How about the twenty second escalator ride a man takes during a lunchbreak in his office lobby?

Perfect.

I admire when an author takes a challenge and runs with it, but this is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of that. It’s not really a story, but a stream of conciousness piece where we follow Howie, a tiny cog in a stonking great machine, as he embarks on his journey up an escalator to his office on the mezzanine at the end of his lunchbreak. Baker allows Howie’s mind to drift and we experience all his thoughts. We all have tiny little thoughts every minute of the day, but this is what would happen if they were all allowed to continue to their logical conclusion.

So in this very short time frame Howie considers why shoelaces break at different times, why people don’t get milk delievered anymore, why straws float in fizzy drinks, why sweeping is good therapy, and how he realised he should be brushing his tongue as well as his teeth, all with the addition of long, tangential footnotes that take you on recesses of his mind that are deeper still.

Howie is almost child-like in his delight of simple things like escalators and the click of a ballpoint pen, but he seems to hold private aspirations to be a great thinker, admiring the people who have invented all the everyday little things that make up our world. He wonders why staplers are always about ten years behind other technological advances, how Kiwi make any money from shoe polish, and whether tunes whistled in bathrooms are passed on from one visitor to another or appear independently.

Given its length (135 pages), there isn’t much else to say about it. It feels like it should be a short read, but it took a fair bit of concentrating simply because Howie jumps back and forth between his thoughts that nestle between one another like Russian dolls, and the footnotes complicate matters further, sometimes taking up two or three pages, meaning you find yourself flicking back and forth through the book to find where this new idea came from. It’s not a complaint, mind, it’s actually a hugely intelligent construct with insane levels of detail. Baker allows Howie several pages to each issue as he ponders on the rise of hot-air dryers in public toilets and how he manages to hold all his belongings in one hand to keep his other one free.

Despite the surprising density, it’s a fun read and very entertaining, causing a few outbursts of unrestrained laughter. Anyone who likes to let their thoughts wander will like this book, as this is that feeling of not knowing how you reached a certain point in your mind turned up to eleven.