Of dying in cubicles

Traveling last week, I took along James Hynes’ Kings of Infinite Space. It’s the story of a failed academic, a one-time literature professor, who abandoned his promising career to a series of affairs and, as the book opens, works as a temp technical writer for the most bureaucratic of state agencies: The General Services Division of the Texas Division of General Services, “the GSD of TxDGS.” Consigned to cubicle hell, Paul Trilby has a grim, Office Space -like existince working for the machine.

There are several counterparts to some of the things that made Office Space so funny, such as mindless adherence to technical details (where Office Space has TPS reports, Kings has watermarks on documents and rote PowerPoint presentations, for instance), clueless management, and oddball co-workers. In this regard, Kings of Infinite Space is pretty funny and sharp.

Into the office Hynes throws a troop of modern-day Morlocks (Hynes isn’t subtle about this: Paul reads The Time Machine on his breaks), pale, pointy-toothed and sometimes really creepy subterranean office workers who turn out to be the real power behind TxDGS. The biggest problem with these two parallel stories is that neither one gets quite the attention it deserves. Kings of Infinite Space could be a hilarious send-up of life in the bureaucracy, or it could be a monster story. Manning the bureaucracy with monsters is a neat idea, and has a lot of interesting potential, but it doesn’t quite fly here, partly because the true nature of the creepy behind-the-scenes happenings at TxDGS isn’t revealed until too late in the story, where all of the book’s threads (including Paul’s latest love affair and the ghost of his ex-wife’s cat) collide all at once. The story up to that point is actually pretty enjoyable, moving between funny and ominous (being haunted by a drowned cat is a little of both), so it’s not an arduous read, but I kept waiting for the core conflict to matter more.