Falling Sideways, By Thomas E Kennedy


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The Independent Culture

White-collar workers bemoan the constraints of corporate life, but find solace in its abstract rhythms. When Freud speculated about the death drive, he argued that repetitive actions mask the desire to return to an inanimate state. Perhaps this explains our attachment to office routine – except that the inactivity of compulsory redundancy makes employees recoil in alarm.

A company in Copenhagen, called Tank, is downsizing. What Tank does is unclear, but that is not its executives' concern, preoccupied as they are with salaries and status. Fred Breathwaite is a US expat who looks after international liaison, a bon viveur whose life is carefree except for concerns about his son Jes, who has dropped out of college.

Breathwaite is contrasted with Harald Jaeger, a philanderer in trouble with his ex-wife and lusting after Tank's head of finance, Birgitte Sommer. Martin Kampman, the CEO, is deciding who to discard. He keeps his subordinates in suspense by remaining aloof and withholding crucial information. Kampman has a rigidly ordered personal life, disrupted only by painful vices.

Kennedy is an American who has lived in Copenhagen for more than 20 years. As he slots together his narratives with masterly elegance, an intimate picture of local life is set before us. While the likes of Kampman might be extending the rot of neo-liberalism into the cosy state of Denmark, for the time being it remains a successful social democracy, even if the result is a society harmonised to an extent many of us would find uncongenial.

Kennedy's finely calibrated observations make his cast eminently believable. The action takes place in autumn, the imminent descent into bitter cold and darkness in tune with the fading fortunes of the company. If there is a weakness, it is in the ways characters fall foul of personal flaws. This is comical, but the neat nature of the satire occasionally nudges the writing into a middlebrow domain.

The most famous recent literary fiction about redundancy is Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. Kennedy offers a notable addition to the genre – if this subject matter isn't too close to home at present.