Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Office: Benson's Cuckoos

Anouk Ricard is best known for her excellent children's comic series Anna and Froga, which is unusual in that its humor is that of awkwardness. Squirm humor, which mines vanity, a lack of self-reflection, the clash of socially inept characters with social mores and in general creates situations that expose our carefully but invisibly created social boundaries, really came to the fore in the US with the TV show Seinfeld. Its co-creator, Larry David, took squirm humor to another level with his own show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. In England, squirm humor was layered atop quotidian, office life with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office. In my review of Ricard's Anna and Froga, I compared the group of friends there to the Seinfeld gang of friends. In the ever-escalating farce Benson's Cuckoo's, Ricard's squirm humor is very much a tribute to The Office that goes in a far more extreme direction.

The story begins with a new employee named Richard being introduced at Benson's Cuckoo's office. We first encounter him being interviewed by the "zany" boss, Mr Benson, who is an even more extreme version of the David Brent/Michael Scott boss from The Office. We learn that he only has the position because he inherited it from his father, who was an actual competent businessman. During the interview, Benson makes inappropriate jokes, draws a mustache on Richard's photo in his resume', asks him if he can touch his feet without bending his knees and other bizarre non sequiturs. Richard is even forced to buy his own computer and bring it into work as a precondition of being hired.

From there, things get even weirder. An office meeting devolves when an accountant faints after his intern screwed up a presentation by hand-drawing a pie chart (using cheese as a model) and doing a line chart without a ruler. An attractive former co-worker of the man Richard replaced named Sophie tears up when his name is mentioned. A belligerent worker named Christine repeatedly makes inappropriate remarks to Richard, some of a sexual nature. The boss seems to want to fire people at the drop of the hat and has the attention span of a gnat. Poor Richard gets drunk and pukes on Sophie, just as he's set to ask her out. While The Office started out weird and squirmy and slowly developed softer edges over the years, Benson's Cuckoos starts out weird and takes a dark (but still hilarious) turn, as the fate of the man Richard replaced becomes an open mystery. Unlike Michael Scott or David Brent, Benson shows no redeeming qualities whatsoever, either as a person or as a competent businessman. The erratic behavior of several coworkers winds up having a sinister origin, and both Sophie and Richard get caught up in it.

The clever thing about this book is that whether Richard is on a forced scavenger hunt or tied up in a basement, the pettiness of the intraoffice relationships doesn't change a bit. The same meanness, spite and laziness just gets pushed up to more absurd levels, but that pettiness keeps the pulse of the action at an even keel. It's hard for the reader to take any of this seriously, and that's how Ricard is able to get so dark at times and still keep the mood of this book light. Of course, the fact that she's using brightly-colored anthropomorphic animals as her characters is another way of keeping everything silly. For example, when Christine, the workmate who makes inappropriate and beilligerent comments to Richard about sex and other matters, lifts up her skirt and inadvertently shows him her panties, any sexualization in that scene is immediately sapped away because she's an anthropomorphic frog. The cheerful color scheme is almost offensive on some pages, giving the warped characters a cute quality they most certainly do not deserve. It's another approach in keeping the book's mood light even as it gets weird. Of course, as Ricard shows us in the end, even when things return to normal, it's the normal of a lunatic like Benson, as the inmates grow to enjoy living in the asylum.

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