Almost any coherent yet utilitarian examination of the corporate world could easily lead to a rather ghastly conclusion—everything that happens within the confines of this environment feeds on the ethics of comparing the potential profits with potential fines, and based on this strictly numeric comparison, decisions are made and employees’ lives are bulldozed to fit accordingly. Debilitating, alienating work coupled with physical and mental exhaustion creates a new breed of psychosis, one that doesn’t play by the rules in terms of visible symptoms and possible cures. In Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary (translated from Spanish by Samuel Rutter), it’s this particular kind of psychosis that kicks off as an indication that an unnamed Latin American corporation lacks responsibility for anything that could happen during an episode of power outage in one of its subsidiary offices—parroting the corporate status quo which, despite having been provided with all the legal rights of an individual, cannot be held liable for its actions in the same way.
With light sources switched off , phone lines completely cut and faraway sounds of shooting coming from the street, human bodies are prevented from running amok by arcane briefings and instructions on how to stay put and behave in outright darkness until further notice. Boxed up in a soulless corporate body immune to penalties, they become (dis)abled by circumstances, by context, by birth—by their very human “nature.” It’s amidst all this that one of the employees (left unnamed until the very end) still finds the energy to file what is going on by writing on stamps designed for corporate use only. This unnamed narrator is also the one stamping, approving, proceeding, fighting boredom and fucking. Bits of unplanned reality spill from the employees’ cubicles and become stapled in a distressing narrative that reminds us humans are most likely to be the only animals for which captivity does not act as a sex repellant.
“The deaf girl flees because she doesn’t know how to scream.”
Once the electrical failure is realized as something indefinite and deliberate as well, unconditional compliance fails to become a benchmark among the employees who are nominated only by reference to their present (dis)ability. Instead, their silences and perverse absences mark their taking leave from corporate control—spiraling into a batch of violent acts, each of them refined to the point when it becomes almost tolerable to one’s sense of morality or lack thereof. They make sure to leave stains, traces and wet fingerprints to chart the darkness that consumes their corporeality, from both within and without. Their feral reactions and gestures also engage a lost and illiterate boy kept captive on the premises of this anonymous subsidiary that could basically be any corporate setting at any given moment. But we are denied any explanation regarding the background of his identity or captivity and neither do we feel welcome to dig deeper. After all, The Subsidiary is not only experimental in form but in meaning as well and this makes you relinquish your complacent practices—of reading and understanding, to step outside them without being frustrated by the professed unreadability of a narrative that functions entirely on alluding to things instead of simply naming and pinning them down on your behalf.
“The blind girl keeps still while the dogs sniff at her. She’s in heat. The sounds in the street copulate with ours.”
While recalling a past work experience at a bank and subsequent escape from it during a lunch break, the narrator also reconstructs a similar routine of receiving, canceling, revising, guaranteeing and dispatching official documents. The apathy surrounding these past events might be difficult to comprehend for anyone not used to working in an environment that redefines the very notions of formality, inflexibility and numbness of the senses. It’s during a general medical checkup that he gets diagnosed with color blindness and agrees to undertake further testing involving electrical experimentation, eventually ending in shock therapy. It’s the kind of testing that more resembles an overhaul, a recovery of expected productivity (and the “normality” it entails) listed by the job description template.
It smells like fish scales. It’s the melted plastic of the wall sockets. The silence of the generator. The cut lines. At the subsidiary, they use the cables for other things. To be safe, they went back to seals and rubber stamps. So that the information can exist. So it can be recorded.
Inadvertently or not, the episodes documented in The Subsidiary are all dated 2008, towards the end of a decade rife with bloody coups against Latin American left-leaning regimes, forcible detentions and “disappearances” of private citizens without further information, a pattern left undisturbed to this very day. Obeying orders and mandates coming out of nowhere, the captive employees quickly lose their polished, “human” appearance and this becomes most obvious when they decide to have a captive of their own. Once dogs are released against them, they are quick to act as a pack of animals themselves by indulging in extreme violence—in the form of self-defense, the only form sanctioned by the state. At some point, the narrator utters something about having been involved in saving people but this hardly reveals why exactly all these things are happening to the trapped workers. The violence ceases by corporate order or, to be more administratively precise, by cancelation of a previous order. Once the power outage ends, dogs are deafened by the high frequency buzz of the generator and restored lights brighten the crime scene. Humans gain back their “freedom” to stay indifferent to each other and enjoy their mundane routine where nothing ever happens.
“The mute girl moans. The one-armed man applauds. The blind girl cries. It is impossible to tell apart the animals.”
An ingenious book-object as the author himself hand-designed the content by typesetting the text of every page into a memo stamp and then stamping it right back into the page, The Subsidiary works in true experimental fashion, meaning that it doesn’t rely on a linear narrative that can be grasped in only one way. It may still be read as cautionary fiction about the extent of violence we can inflict on ourselves and others given the means and opportunity, despite how casually the violence is actually chronicled in this book. Or it can familiarize you once again to the dehumanizing aspects of corporate labor—the toll they take on one’s behavior and mental health. But either way, there’s still something grainy about this book, something I can’t exactly wrap my head around. The only way I could describe it is that it has the feel of a fast-forwarding nightmare you might have while commuting by subway train and falling asleep for 5 minutes while standing up—severely disorienting.
Matías Celedón is an award-winning novelist, journalist, and screenwriter. He lives in Santiago, Chile. The Subsidiary is his first book to be translated into English.
Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia.
M H used to write for what used to be Bookslut and is currently cross-stitching Dissonances at Drunken Boat.
Images: Cover, Melville House. All others, Matías Celédon.
The Subsidiary is published by Melville House. Author/translator bio courtesy of same.