Falling Sidewaysby Winston Len
Thomas E. Kennedy
(Bloomsbury USA, 2011)
Set in Copenhagen, Falling Sideways is a corporate novel that challenges the status quo life. Most of the characters work for the Tank, a Danish think tank-like organization with a vague “interdisciplinary policy mission.” Besides being a play on the organization’s function, the Tank’s name hints at an unstoppable menace—downsizing is about to wreak havoc on its employees.
Frederick Breathwaite is the Tank’s “chief of international affairs,” a “token foreigner” whose Epicurean lifestyle is threatened by retrenchment. Harald Jaegar, the executive slated to replace Breathwaite, is controlled more by lust than ambition. Above them all is Martin Kampman, the Tank’s callous CEO, whose iron grip on the workplace fails to translate into control at home. While the adults struggle with their venality, a parallel story about the teenage generation unfolds. Jes Breathwaite and Adam Kampman try to escape their fathers’ shadows as they search for a meaningful life.
At its best, the book’s prose has a compelling wit, which ranges from tongue-in-cheek quips to lines of lush and lyrical quality. In one scene, a character muses about her smoking addiction:
Maybe they would pass a law that would require you to say to the shop clerk: I am an idiot. May I have a pack of Prince Silvers please? And if you didn’t: Sorry, madam, but you didn’t say you were an idiot. The law requires…
Kennedy’s erudition also comes across clearly. From Ibsen and Rumi to the Presidents of the United States (the rock band), the characters constantly quote high and pop culture icons. These quotes deftly bring out the characters’ confusion; they cling to the wisdom of others as they stumble through life. In the book, even the younger generation seems worldly and weary. “You know what happens when the dead awaken. They find that they have never lived,” a son admonishes his father.
The scope of Falling Sideways is ambitious. The book is more than a corporate satire: it examines the satire people make of their own lives. It is hard not to feel for the characters as they each teeter on their own ledge, struggling to balance their aspirations and personal failings. Do they fall? The tension ratchets up through the book and culminates in an appropriately untidy ending.