Gross Margin by Laurent Quintreau

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Gross Margin by Laurent Quintreau

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Loosely based on Divine Comedy we have the stream of consciousness thoughts of eleven executives in a meeting. It's bitingly savage, appallingly funny and frighteningly close to reality. Recommended.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 144 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846551215

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It's eleven o'clock and the President has called a meeting. There are eleven executives around the boardroom table and in the next two hours the President will harangue them about such matters as cost cutting, redundancy (as cheaply as possible) and restructuring. They must all look engrossed in what is being said but their thoughts are fleetingly elsewhere and it's their thoughts that make up this book. Told as stream-of consciousness and lacking punctuation it's a trip deep into the individuals' psyche.

It's a while since I've read such an elegant and inventive retelling of Divine Comedy with each of the executives at the table representing a circle, nine of hell, one of purgatory and one of paradise. Each one allows us to be privy to their thoughts, about themselves, their colleagues and Rorty, the President. Nothing is hidden as their unconscious spews out their obsessions, their scheming and their lust, be it for power or person. And what is decidedly lacking is any liking for their colleagues.

If you've ever worked in an office you will recognise each of these people – the man on the way down, the man on the make, the single mother struggling to get through each day and the HR man forced into actions which go against his principles. You'll know the type and you can put your own names to them. As you read you'll nod and laugh because this book is very sharply observed.

I thought that the stream of consciousness device might become a little wearing, particularly when used throughout a book but Quintreau has wisely kept the book short and avoided any attempt at embellishment. He's captured perfectly the way that people think – fleeting thoughts sliding into other, often unrelated, subjects and without any form of censorship.

Divine Comedy is used as a loose framework rather than a strict template. It's a nod rather than a parody. Reading the book took about a couple of hours, but I spent as long again with my copy of the Comedy linking the sins to the circles of Hell. Rorty, the President, is consigned to the eight circle – the one reserved for those who commit conscious fraud or treachery. That's ideal for the man who wants his HR director to get rid of those under fifty rather than older employees because it's cheaper to get rid of the younger people. He likes the idea of employing rooms full of interns who'll work fourteen hours a day and who are easily replaced. He also wants to be certain that the company has an ethical image.

I suspected that the scope for character development of eleven individuals in such as short book would be limited, but I was surprised by the way that so many of them came off the page fully formed. Rorty dominates, but then he would expect no less. The only one who has even a spark of happiness is Alighieri, who, giving a final nod to the author of Divine Comedy sits alone in Paradise. The book is savage, funny and appallingly close to reality.

The translation is by Polly McLean and whilst I can't comment on how true it is to the original French, the reading is easy and colloquial.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you'd like more office-based fiction then you might like to try Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris – but we think Gross Margin is better.

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Buy Gross Margin by Laurent Quintreau at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Gross Margin by Laurent Quintreau at


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