By Rhonda Dredge
In pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) days, corporate culture attracted quite a degree of cynical attention from both outsiders and insiders.
One commentator was novelist Elliot Perlman who began knocking economic rationalism back in 1998.
You could say that Perlman is a pioneer in the genre of the corporate novel.
His first corporate novel Three Dollars was acclaimed but Perlman branched out into more esoteric themes for the next 20 years.
Now he has returned to corporate culture and he is not alone in his fascination with the dodgy moves that leaders of large firms employ in their daily business.
In his latest novel Maybe the Horse Will Talk the protagonist is about to be down-sized from a large Melbourne legal firm and he devises a plan to save his job and mortgage.
That plan involves making a problem with sexual harassment allegations go away for a major client.
Maybe the Horse Will Talk is a Netflix kind of novel, set in Melbourne, but with connotations of American wheeling and dealing and dynamic duos.
Anyone who loved the legal series Suits, The Good Wife or The Good Life will enjoy this book with its dramatic plot turns, little-guy-versus-big-guy theme and overbearing legal types.
Stephen Maserov is a second-year lawyer who manages to outsmart the feared partner Crispy Hamilton with the aid of a down-and-out, rather ridiculous lawyer called A.A. Betga who has paternity, drinking and financial issues but is as crafty as Louis Canning in The Good Wife.
Together they figure out a way of getting compensation for victims of sexual harassment at a large property construction firm Torrent Industries.
The novel is episodic, dialogue-based and linear, with switches between various settings, including the Maserov family home, a St Kilda bar where the love interest hangs out, a suburban pub and the two CBD premises of Freely Savage Carter Blanche, and Torrent Industries.
Freely Savage is at the Paris end of Collins St and Torrent Industries is down near King St somewhere but Perlman is not really into details of street culture.
Instead, he delves quite movingly into the protagonist’s problems with love, work and ethics in a fast-paced, amusing and clever narrative that shines through its legal maneouvres.
Perlman works in real life as a lawyer at Owen Dixon Chambers in the city and uses his knowledge to great effect.
The novel has been criticised for being too “blokey” – males sorting out problems for female victims and it can’t be denied that there is an element of the heroic about it as the action escalates.
Male and female roles tend to be polarised with females being good and males strategic. Human resources at Freely Savage is nicknamed the Stasi but a female HR employee of Indian descent at Torrent is beautiful and prefers to use her intelligence to track down incriminating files.
Storytelling requires strong narrative drive and the rest of the world has now caught up with the drama Perlman discovered 20 years ago in the corporate workplace.
Back then the protagonist in Three Dollars seemed to internalise the threat. Now, we are more prepared to accept that corporate culture can be dangerous to the soul and protagonists need to be clever about the way they handle it •