Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Dot-com tonic

Posted By on Wed, Sep 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Mike Daisey's account of working in the customer-service department at bears a striking resemblance to Ben Hamper's 1992 memoir Rivethead, a hilarious retelling of the time Hamper clocked at an automobile factory. Both young men, each a smart though self-admitted slacker with a knack for acerbic prose, get sucked into inhumanly repetitive jobs. But whereas Hamper succumbs to a nervous breakdown from his dreary labors, Daisey gets promoted.

That absurdity makes 21 Dog Years a great testament to the irrational exuberance of the dot-com era. Daisey signed on at Amazon as a last resort after a string of temp jobs and low-paying acting gigs. The book's best passages tingle with tension as Daisey watches himself fall for the new-economy talk he knows is jive. "There was the Old World, and the New World, and a war was coming in which Amazon would play a vital role, vanquishing bad, brick and mortar corporations," Daisey writes. "We began to believe that by supporting we would be helping to crush chains and monopolies and faceless bureaucracies. We were hopelessly naíve."

Not that Daisey ever became slavish in his devotion. For one, he wasn't particularly good at his job. He improved his average response time by hanging up on callers immediately after greeting them. He sent unordered books to random people in Norway for kicks. He avoided being fired only by being promoted, thanks to a study he did on the customer-service response times of competitors — a study that used faked data.

What Daisey slowly came to realize, with a perfect mix of horror and mirth, was that it didn't even matter that the report was fiction. "It was only now that I could see that they never cared whether that report was real or not," he writes. "They looked all this over and thought 'This guy knows how to spin, knows how to twist things into shape. This guy can do very well here.' And the worst part was that they were right."

As funny as it is mocking, 21 Dog Years is the perfect tonic for the post-new-economy recession.

Joab Jackson writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].


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