Failure, Inc. is a story that I wrote over Sunday and Monday of this week. It's the first story I've written in a long time. I was aiming to write something that could be submitted for under 5,000 word writing contests (this is 15 words under 5000). It is almost a matter of protest against my present-day circumstances, which are highly distasteful. I am not afraid of anyone plagiarizing the story because I do not think it is very sucessful. It is in a way an expression of the frustration of unemployment, and employment in general.
Van sat in the waiting room in the 14th floor office of a mysterious company named Failure, Inc., a Time Warner Company. The office was located in Century City, CA, and the Time Warner Affiliation gave Van great confidence that he would be going to work for a highly reputable firm. Nobody had mentioned what Failure, Inc. did for its business. Indeed, Van had answered a very mysterious online advertisement. This is what it said:
Are you tired of going on useless interviews? Do you ever get fed up with overcrowded areas and politically correct corporate atmospheres? But, are you still in search of an employer than can take care of you, even if you don’t have to be their slave? Our company may be for you. We are in search of highly creative individuals to manage a number of projects. Growth potential is limitless. All applicants will be considered. Please send your resume to HR@failure.com
Van was supposed to meet someone named Christopher. Christopher was the owner of the company and he had told Van over the phone when he called that he insisted on personally doing every interview, because the filter of an additional HR assistant would have forced him to be more mechanical about the process, and Van had remembered he said, “There’s nothing mechanical about our company at all.”
Christopher came into the waiting room, saw the one young man sitting there, said, “Van?” introduced himself, and led the way to his office. It was a rather bare office, the only accoutrements being a computer on Christopher’s desk, a few posters on the wall that looked to be book advertisements, and a degree on the wall from Loyola Marymount University.
“Did you find the place okay?” Christopher asked.
“Yes, I’ve been to Century City a bunch of times,” Van answered.
“But I bet they’re always telling you to park in the mall garage, right?” Christopher added.
Van laughed politely, “Yeah, the first three hours are free.”
“That always used to piss me off so much,” Christopher said.
“You used to interview here too?” Van asked, wanting to appear intrigued.
“Ten years ago, I was probably in the exact same position as you. From your resume it looks like you went to school on the east coast, tried to live at home for a while, and then decided to move to L.A. to , let me guess, work in the entertainment industry?” Christopher spun.
“That’s pretty much accurate,” Van answered.
“Well, Van, I want you to relax then. Please, take off your jacket, loosen your tie. All your worries are over. Let me tell you, I started this company as a reaction against the options available to the young, intelligent person without appreciable business skills. Such bullshit, such bullshit when you get out of college and look for an entry-level job, and then you find there’s nothing out there unless you go back for more school! Crazy! But, when it happened to me, I really had nowhere to go, but I started going to Loyola for law school, and somehow I made it work. I got my J.D. and rather than starting my own law practice, I started this company, and I serve as head legal counsel. Intellectual property is my specialty, and at Failure, Inc. you will be creating intellectual property—your own.”
“So, what would I actually do if I started working for the company?” Van asked.
“You come in from Monday through Friday, from 9 AM to 5 PM, or another 8 hour span if your commute is unreasonable with rush hour traffic. Some people start work at 6 and leave at 2. I don’t care, so long as you put in your eight hours. I’ll tell you right now, it’s really easy to slack off here and do less work than you should, but in three years of business, I have not had a single problem with anyone trying to lie about how much work they’ve finished. This is the only place in the world where people do what they love. A lot of people apply for this job, I get a lot of resumes, but I only pick the ones that I know are capable of producing intellectual property. That is, a college education, though I do not make that a stipulation as I have had some employees who are brilliant despite a lack of collegial knowledge. Also important is your list of top five authors. That is very important in the cover letter and you did a good job—wait, who were yours again?”
“I think it was J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Don Delillo, and Philip Roth,” Van recalled slowly
“Very American! You see, most people have trouble naming five that they really like beyond all others. I never judge who their five are, but you can usually tell if someone is listing someone whose books they have never read. I know it sounds weird, but you can. People list authors that are somehow associated with one another. But this doesn’t really matter. Let me continue, you will come in from 9 AM to 5 PM, or some such other 8 hour period, and you will have your own cubicle that you are free to decorate with whatever you want and you will have your own computer, and you will have the option of a PC or Mac, tell me what other company does that for you! Finally, you will begin your work, which is to produce content. We always start every new employee off with their memoir assignment. You will write about your life, and you will do it in a brilliant manner. All of our employees do it first, and every employee reads every memoir, and then everybody is on very good terms with one another. We have such a happy family here!”
Van became somewhat nervous at this explanation, “What if I don’t feel comfortable writing about my life?”
“Why would you be uncomfortable?” Christopher pushed.
“I haven’t made any great discoveries…” Van began
“You’ve failed, no?” Christopher asked.
“Yes, I’ve failed over and over.”
“Also why I picked your resume, Van! I can sense failure from a mile away. Why else do you think the company is named it! This is the greatest secret company the world has ever had, and everybody who sees the name, Failure, Inc., they’re like, “Why would I ever want to work for them! Failure is bad!” But I see failing as good. Too many people succeed! Or rather, too many people brag about their success. Not enough people whine about their failure. It makes everyone else feel small. Great, you’ve got a happy marriage! I’ve been a lonely bachelor for my entire adult life and you just made me want to kill myself! You see, Failure, Inc. is my way of getting back at everyone, and doing it in a way that is going to make all of us internationally famous and rich. Everyone says that life is unfair, so how come all you see are smiles all the time? Van, you are special.”
“Thanks,” Van said, finding the whole interview more bizarre by the moment.
“When you admit all the failures you have made in your memoir, you will be cleansed! You must be completely thorough about every single failure, and then you will know, intuitively, how never to fail again. And actually! Actually! Would you believe that a good deal of the sense of whether or not you are a failure comes from the company you work for, so already, I like you Van, I can tell you are a really good person, you are kind of set! Forever! AND, the greatest thing about Failure, Inc. is that your work is not just busy work. Your work is highly significant. Your work will go on to be produced by film and television studios, be available in bookstores across the country, and if it is good enough, people will still utter your name in praise years after your death.”
“I just don’t see how you get paid to do this,” Van asked.
“Do you see the ‘a Time Warner Company’ designation on the subtitle of our company placard? Ha! A multi-billion dollar corporation like that, founded upon entertainment values, is more than happy to support our cause, once properly explained. Our payroll is provided by them and our production overhead is provided by a series of grants which we are always obtaining. Would you believe that I actually received a MacArthur Genius Grant last year?”
“No way,” Van said.
“Yes way,” Christopher went on, “The company was original enough that they considered me a genius. That’s $100,000 we got. Now, we also have people who work on obtaining grants for us—those are the only ‘less creative’ people we have working for us, though they do produce content in their spare time, just not as much as other full-timers. No, their experience is in grant-writing, and they are the only typical business employees we have. We also have a printing press in one of our rooms, and you might think we should have a full-time printer, but actually, everyone is expected to learn how to operate the printing press. Do you have any questions?” Christopher seemed to stop and finalize things.
“What is the compensation?”
“You have a base salary plus commissions. Are you okay with that?” Christopher asked.
“What is the base?” Van asked.
“A lowly 32,000 dollars a year, with taxes taken out of course. With California tax laws, that kind of sucks to be honest. Figure close to 20% taken out, but it’s worth it, you’ve got to admit it’s worth it!” Christopher joked excitedly, “I feel much more comfortable with Arnold around! In fact! Would you believe that the Governor himself and his wife came to personally congratulate me on my MacArthur? Do you know what the Governator said to me? He said, “I want you to write a story about California in a post 9/11 world, all of the wildfires. I want you to write about Malibu homes on fire! I will return to the movies to play a firefighter for that subject!” I laughed, I laughed so hard. He is a great man.”
Van was very impressed with Christopher’s anecdote and sat stupidly smiling for a moment.
“But sorry, $32,000, minus 20%, that’s a little more than $26,000, so that’s a little more than $2,000 a month, which is just barely good enough to live on here.”
“Depending on where you live….” Van mumbled.
“Yes, but your commission will be lucrative. You will make 10% off the total price of your production—effective forever.”
“Nice,” Van said, “But it must take a while to produce that first memoir.”
“Yes, that’s generally the only problem we have in offering jobs to people. You would think that everyone would be ecstatic to take this position. Some people are just too greedy that $26,000 isn’t enough to live on per year, but also, those people probably lack the confidence that they can produce something that a random stranger is going to waste their time reading, or watching, whatever.”
“Yeah, but, what if you don’t produce enough,”
“We have ways of dealing with that. You will still be paid your base salary, but if you show no signs of progress or productivity in this realm, you will be fired. I’m sorry! I know it’s a really cool company, but we have to fire people. The ironic thing is its called Failure, Inc. but a lot of people come in here thinking they’ll be able to take on the full-time task of producing a huge amount of entertaining, worthwhile content, and after just a few weeks, they start claiming they’re blocked, and sometimes their work looks more and more like plagiarism, and if everyone decides that the work they’ve produced is bad enough, they will be asked to leave. Most people don’t have this problem, though. We have a team of twenty-five employees, and every year we lose about one or two, either because somebody finds out who they are and makes them a better offer (which we always think they are idiots for taking, because we all laugh to ourselves about how they’re totally going to be taken advantage of now) or because, like I mentioned before, they just don’t have what it takes. How does this all sound to you, Van?”
“It sounds great.”
“Would you like to start on Monday?”
“Okay great, come in at whatever early hour you choose. The dress is casual. Some of our employees come to work in ripped jeans and t-shirts. I myself wear a suit because I am the President and a lawyer. I actually don’t want anyone else wearing a suit because it makes me feel less important. But yes, come in on Monday, and remember, you are now working for the greatest company in Century City, and potentially the world—your life is about to change so much for the better.”
On Monday, Christopher greeted Van in the waiting room again and showed him to his cubicle, outfitted with a Mac, as Van had requested in the e-mail asked of him over the weekend. Van met some of his cubicle neighbors—Allison, Jerry, and William—and all of them wanted to chat it up.
“So it’s a pretty cool company, huh?” Jerry asked.
“Yeah, it’s the coolest,” Van said.
“You’ll never want to leave,” Allison said.
“I feel confident that this is the best possible place we could end up, we’re all very lucky,” William said.
“But you have to do that memoir assignment first, right?” Jerry asked.
“That’s right,” Van said.
“That’s the test,” Allison said, “If you pass the test, you get to stay.”
“Don’t sweat it,” William said, “Almost everyone passes. You wouldn’t be here in the first place if they didn’t think you could pass it.”
“I just don’t think my life is interesting enough!” Van let out excitedly.
“Pfft, and you think ours are?” Jerry said.
“Nobody’s life is interesting,” Allison said, “All interesting stories are full of lies.”
“Or full of filters,” William added.
“Yes, the absence of failure,” Jerry interjected.
“Failure is interesting,” Allison said, “Just remember that. Failure is more useful than success.”
“Can I ask you,” Van said, “What did you start your memoirs with? When you are born, or when you went to school—where do you start?”
Jerry picked up his phone and said, “Christopher, Van needs help starting his memoir.”
Not a minute later the President appeared and looked benevolently down at Van.
“Opening segment jitters?” Christopher guessed, “Remember, you are working for Failure, Inc. What is the biggest failure of your life?”
Van had difficulty summoning up this factoid. His life had been a romantic failure, but he did not want to write about that. “Probably moving to L.A., thinking I was going to work for some big movie studio, running out of all my money, barely scraping by with help from my parents,” he finally said.
“But you ended up here!” Christopher said, “So your failure has led to your destiny. I don’t consider that very worthwhile. Every try committing suicide?” he asked.
“I don’t know….yes?” Van said.
“Suicide is the most interesting subject in the world! Camus made a career out of it and won the Nobel Prize for Literature! Our ultimate goal is for one of our employees to win that esteemed award. Practically everyone’s memoir begins with a suicide attempt. It’s perfect you see. There’s obviously some sort of failure attached to the desire, it’s interesting, and it’s empathetic because you show yourself at the bottom, as low as anyone else can go.”
“But do I really want to do that, do I really want everyone to see how weak I’ve been?” Van asked philosophically.
“Yes! If you’d like, you can write about how you got accepted to Swarthmore and majored in English, but I’m telling you, I don’t know if that memoir will pass our test. Part of the sacrifice of working for Failure, Inc. is that you show yourself naked, with all of your accumulated faults, weaknesses and inadequacies. If you deny possession of these less attractive qualities, certain elements of your story may strike the reader as inauthentic. Authenticity is so important in art! How would you feel if a friend came into your room, poured his heart out to you, told you all of these crazy things about himself that you had absolutely no idea about, and then, just as he was about to leave, and just as you were about to stand up and hug him goodbye, he says, “By the way, I was lying about all of that.” He is not as good a friend anymore, now is he?”
“No,” Van concurs.
“Your work should be honest about your failures. When someone picks up a book, they’re hoping that the author will have some sort of intuitive understanding of their inner state. That is the only sort of literature that is worthwhile—the kind when, as you read it, you feel the author is speaking to you directly, making reference to your immediate, present situation, as impossible and supernatural as it may seem. That has been the aim of literature since the ancients, and, unfortunately, I must add that people find it less and less necessary to read books, so much of our content will not actually be read as it is intended by an audience, but read by more creative developers, who will then turn the story into a movie, and who will find actors to represent your person, so that the audience will feel more comfortable identifying failure with someone who, obviously, is a pretty big success, if they’re a celebrity at least.”
“So my memoir should just make people feel better about themselves?” Van asked.
“In a nutshell, that is not a bad guiding principle,” Christopher said, smiling, “Is that helpful enough?”
“Yes, I think I’ll be alright now,” Van said, and began typing his memoir on the Mac at his cubicle. He wrote about his suicide attempt in L.A. Or rather, his thinking on a suicide attempt, since he had been so afraid that if he attempted, it would work, since there would be no one around to assist him in his potentially life-threateningly injured condition. Authenticity was in play here. There would be no lies about rope purchased, blades sharpened, pills procured, strange heights sought. There would be description of Van alone in his bed at night, an impassioned monologue flitting through his mind, rushed, pessimistic thoughts. Romantic hopelessness, the inability to sustain an independent lifestyle, social anxieties and bitter loneliness—all these emotions coursed through Van’s words. He was writing from the heart. By lunch hour, which everyone took together at 1:00 in the conference/lunch room, he had completed over two thousand words.
All the employees sat around a giant hexagonal table, opening up their individually designated bags. Christopher saw Van enter and gestured towards the open seat next to him.
“I forgot to ask for your order, I’m sorry, so I took the liberty of getting you the same thing as me,” Christopher explained, “So how are you getting on? Did you start well?”
Van opened up his bag, which contained an Italian sub, a bag of Vickie’s sea salt and vinegar potato chips, a banana, and a can of coca-cola. “I think I did pretty well. Is 2,000 words good?”
“It’s hard to measure whether word count production rate has any relation to end product efficiency. You could be writing a 150 page book or a 900 page book. But in general, in the first week we like to see a high production rate like that, because we will be paying extra close attention to your first work, obviously. The more content we have to sort through and critique, the better we will be able to assess your strengths and weaknesses, and to get a sense of how much of a failure you can be for us.”
Van started a bit at the last comment, and Christopher noticed, and laughed, saying, “I’m sorry you’ll have to get used to that! We don’t like to say the word ‘success’ or any variant of it. We always prefer to say fail. Call it a superstition or whatever you will.”
Van slowly chewed his sandwich and Christopher asked, “Do you have any more questions?”
“Yes,” Van said, “What exactly do you label your business under?”
“Well,” Christopher said, “We are one-of-a-kind. We are a fully operational agency-publishing house-printing-press-literary-legal-counsel firm. We haven’t been able to come up with a tidy acronym. Basically, we are a publisher.”
“But no agents?” Van asked.
“We’ve done away with literary agents. You’ll find many of your colleagues used to seek out their assistance. You’ll also find many of them had a bevy of distasteful experiences. Another one of the perks of Failure, Inc., right there. I’m your agent, okay, and I’m also your editor, okay, and that goes for all of your colleagues as well. Everyone helps each other through every part of this process—brainstorming, motivating, reading, editing, printing, and selling—so you’re not alone in the void, like always. And it’s not like a typical writing group where maybe nobody knows what they’re talking about, or you’re realistically only writing for them. Here we are very much writing for a living. Also, there is no spirit of competitiveness—rather, we foster a very deep respect for teamwork and cooperation. To be part of Failure, Inc. is a great honor in itself, and people are often just as proud of this as they are of the work they produce under our banner.”
A week later Van’s first work had been reviewed and he was called in for his editing appointment. He sat across from Christopher in his office.
“Your work looks good,” Christopher said straight out, “I think you’re going to fit in very well. Of course you do still need some help, I would like to specify, in the field of detail.”
“I know it’s a problem” Van said, “I never know how long to go on for.”
“How long of a book are you trying to write?”
“To be honest as short as possible because I really want to get the memoir book out of the way.”
“What! That is a cardinal sin, Van!” Christopher pressed a button on his phone and said, “Betsy, get me Allison.” Allison arrived a moment later.
Christopher asked her, “Allison, what is your opinion on rushing through assignments?”
“It’s the stupidest thing you can do,” Allison said, “Rome is not built in a day.”
“Excuse me,” Van said, “But Rome would have been built much faster if they had the technology we do today.”
“And tell me,” Christopher said, “What technological advantage do you have over Cicero?”
“Printing press?” Van asked.
“Computer, printing press—you may have these at your disposal, but you lack the authority of Cicero. Ask yourself—is there anything you know with great certainty? Are there any facts you can admit you understand?”
“I’m going to die,” Van said.
“That is so typical,” Allison said, “That knowledge is completely trite.”
“I’m going to have to pay taxes?” Van said.
Christopher said, “No, I pay your taxes for you. I take care of everything for you! I order your lunch for you! I get you a Mac because you prefer it to a PC and still you want to rush through your work! Do you know how long I expect us all to be working here?”
“Fifty years! When I hire someone, I expect them to be here for fifty years! Tell me if you feel the need to be rushing through your work now!”
“I guess I’m just not thrilled about writing a memoir. I don’t like writing about myself.”
Christopher drummed his fingers on his desk. “Allison, what did you learn in writing your memoir?”
“How much detail to go into.”
“Ta-da! Van, it is a learning experience. All jobs require you to do something distasteful, to dive into material with which you might not be comfortable. This is the hardest part for a lot of people, but I’m telling you, I like what I see. I just don’t like cardinal sins! Allison, tell him about cardinal sins!”
“Cardinal sins occur when someone expresses doubt as to their ability to complete a task.”
“But aren’t I supposed to be proud of all my failures?” Van asked confusedly.
“Yes,” Christopher said, “Keep writing down all your failures you fool! Your level of detail is the only thing that needs work. Otherwise you are passing with flying colors! Tell me, do I need to know about your pet goldfish? What does it matter what his name was—indeed, I even doubt whether you knew it was a boy fish or girl fish. What does your relationship with your pet goldfish tell me about you, or your story? That you led a very dull existence? Fine. If your story is about how your life is dull, then include those dull details, but I will mention again, I don’t think a memoir containing a bevy of goldfish details is going to excite anyone. But your life has been an adventure, Van. You don’t have that problem.”
Van said, “I’m feeling a lot of pressure.”
“That’s because you’re putting it on yourself! Would you prefer that we give you a timetable in which to finish your rough draft?”
“That might be helpful for me,” Van said.
“Fine, you have three months to complete your memoir. Now, people say that books take years to write, but we are much more efficient here. I am confident you will be finished in three months, then, three more months to turn in the polished product. How do you feel now?”
“Good, then back to work!”
Six months later Van finished his memoir, learned the printing press, printed 100 copies and began contacting bookstores across the country. Obviously first Barnes & Noble and Borders, as you could easily clean out your one hundred copies if all of their stores wanted a few. After the big ones, it was on to the more underground ones, the ones deeply respected in cities across the nation—Strand Bookstore and Shakespeare & Co. in New York, Quimby’s bookstore and Myopic books in Chicago, Circus of Books in Los Angeles, more and more from research on the internet. Then it was onto publicity. Christopher called Van into his office at this period.
“You see Van? You see how easy it is? We’ve done all the hard work for you! We’ve had faith in you all along, and you see, our faith pays off! Next we have the most exciting part of your career, the publicity! I’ve set you up with a feature in the L.A. Times. You will be interviewed, and your book will be given the fluff treatment! Now, in a week or so, the real reviews will begin appearing, but for now, put your best face on, and tell them how great Failure has been for you. They always love jokes about the name.”
Van met with the L.A. Times reporter who introduced herself as Mary at a Peet’s coffee shop. She asked him about how he got the job and he said it sort of fell into his lap. He answered an ad, he had an unusual resume, and there was a response. He said he stumbled into the greatest dream of his life. Mary asked him about his book and he called it a stunning declaration of love for the refuge of art. He said the book describes all of his problems with working in the 21st century business world and how due to an “act of God” he could now do what he loved.
The reviews for Van’s first book, Tiny Checking, were very positive. What the reviewers said Van lacked in experience, he made up for in earnestness. They said it was truly heartening to read someone’s thoughts on the breakdown of the workplace and the idea of sustainable lifestyles. They said the ideas had always been taken for granted, and Van had been shrewd in his skewering of society’s so-called foundations.
Until Van euthanatized himself at age 79, he worked at the same office of Failure, Inc. He saw his co-workers die, and he met co-workers thirty years his junior. He wrote twenty books in his time, and Christopher became lenient in vacation time after the first three years. He had developed a summer vacation plan not unlike those designated for teachers. When Van was suffering, and about to leave the office for good, Christopher called him in for one last meeting.
“Well Van, I bet you didn’t think you’d last. Look at me! I’m 89 god-damned years old. You wonder what the secrets to longevity are, and then you stop caring about them. Van, were you happy?”
“I owe everything to you Christopher.”
“Good because we own everything about you. We’re very glad you chose to support our cause. You didn’t win the Nobel, but you got nominated! That’s something. Unfortunately it’s too bad you had to see Jerry win it—I mean, he deserved it, we can all agree, but it must be bitter to be nominated and lose to a colleague! Don’t worry—Geographical Syllabi will be read for generations to come. And I still like Tiny Checking! What youthful ambition you had. I will be happy to make some sort of speech at your funeral. When is it scheduled for?”
“Well, good show Van.”
He shook Christopher’s hand a final time, left the office, took the elevator down, went to his car, drove to his house, ate a satisfying meal, and went to bed.