A hostile working environment

In Stanley Bing's corporate satire, charges of sexual harassment bring down a mighty executive - and set him free.

Most Americans never grope the body of sexual harassment law. Every year or so, aroused by some public scandal or a tryst annulled in confidential memos, personnel directors send out chilly reminders that "this company takes all accusations of sexual harassment seriously." But despite 30 years of evolving law and regulations, we all know that plenty of workers endure boorish advances, off-color jokes, and crude bargains for promotion. And of course, beyond the reach of official memorandums still lingers the stubborn cultural presumption that women who complain about such behavior are just bad team players, humorless shrews, or fragile hysterics who misinterpret the most harmless remarks.

Stanley Bing's new novel, "You Look Nice Today," does nothing to disturb those pernicious stereotypes, but it's very funny. That makes it hard for a liberal guy to critique without sounding shrill (What part of "No" don't you understand?) or insensitive (There she goes again!). The whole time I was snickering away, I worried that some HR functionary would drop a warning into my personnel file. (No doubt it'd be safer to write under a pen name like, say, "Stanley Bing," the pseudonym of Gil Schwartz, executive vice president of communications for CBS and a columnist for Fortune magazine.)

The first part of Bing's witty satire takes place in the offices of a major financial corporation during a bull market that encourages once-healthy companies to merge into "new, bloated, unfocused companies." At the center of this activity in the Global Corporation is Harb, executive vice president in charge of "Total Quality."

The fastidious narrator and Harb's best friend, Mr. Tell, writes, "I would like to state that Harb was a prepossessing person, with a straight back, a clear, judicious eye, and a nerve as rock-steady as his washboard stomach. Alas, none of these statements would be true, except perhaps for the quality of his eye.... Harb was bland, bland to a level so profound it was almost a personal statement."

At 44, that complete scouring away of his personality leaves a polished surface of calm bonhomie that makes him well liked, frequently promoted, and extravagantly compensated. Harb is, in short, the very model of a modern major manager, complete with corner office, unlimited expense account, a trophy home he rarely sees, an attractive wife he never speaks to, and smart children he doesn't know. Mr. Tell's comically precise accounting of a typical high-powered day in Harb's life should be enough to waken anyone to the nightmare of the American dream.

One day, in a moment of extraordinary crisis, an exotic temp secretary named CarolAnne Winter swoops into the office with 30 minutes to spare and saves a multimillion dollar deal. Despite her somewhat exotic apparel (tight wraps, not quite long enough) and a few odd personal quirks (loud prayer sessions in the lunchroom), she's the best assistant anyone has ever seen, "a vision sent down to us from the corporate deities." Harb hires her immediately, and over the course of several years, she rises with him up the corporate ladder.

Harb is a demanding boss, but he clearly adores her: He pays her frequent and hefty bonuses (sometimes from his own checking account), helps her get an apartment away from her abusive husband, and gives her a car when she has no transportation.

"There is nothing wrong with it in actuality," Mr. Tell notes in his clipped, old-fashioned voice, "but it carries the appearance of impropriety to those who see bad motivation at the root of all human behavior."

His suspicions seem prescient once the stock market collapses, business dries up, and CarolAnne's "incandescent strangeness" begins to outshine her administrative talents. When Harb and Mr. Tell attempt to transfer her to another division, she announces that "she has, since her arrival at the company, been the victim of an organized campaign of sexual harassment, particularly focused on thwarting her naturally pious bent with cynical innuendo ... and degenerate thoughts of sexual congress." She names Harb as "the worst of the worst" and reveals that God has told her that only $150 million will soothe her pain.

The second two thirds of the novel consist mostly of trial transcripts, wryly annotated by Mr. Tell, in which CarolAnne's lawyer attempts to shock the jury by producing the full range of Harb's offenses, such as the time he told her, "You look nice today." Much of the comedy here comes from her insane tendency to imagine that every innocuous comment she overhears in the office is really about her, i.e. "Why don't you take out the trash?"

Mr. Tell takes us through four days of this legal circus along with his running commentary on the collapse of Harb's career and marriage. We're meant to feel the full despair of this unraveling so that we can marvel at the way Harb finally finds what really matters once he's stripped of everything, sitting like Job among the ashes.

But here the novel sounds a little disingenuous, considering the extraordinary perks Harb retains even when he "loses everything." Surely, it's easier to land on the ash heap if you're wearing a golden parachute of stock options, benefits, and pensions. The moral seems to be something like, "When all you have left are your millions, you can finally see what really matters in life."

The more interesting and ultimately more tragic character is Mr. Tell, a man who admits "I've never been able to be anything but my own consistently tedious self." Success has atrophied his personality, leaving him intensely curious about others, but entirely inert. He can only watch and tell in a kind of hyper- analytical tone that's unfailingly witty, but suggests an inability to interact with anyone. He's been essentially disembodied by corporate life, attenuated into a kind of Greek chorus that can only gasp at Harb's collapse and marvel at his resurrection.

Still, what a wonderful novel to argue about and chuckle over. If there are any truly integrated book clubs in America - not just by race, but by gender and class - here's a title for discussion that will delay dessert.

CarolAnne, with her ridiculous get-ups, freaky faith, and insane misinterpretations of what's going on around her, is undeniably a funny character. But some part of me (the part in sensible shoes?) wishes she didn't fit so comfortably in that long line of misogynist portraits that stretches from the water cooler all the way back to the Odyssey.

Somehow, Stanley Bing didn't get that memo.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, Ron Charles.

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