The Regional Office is your standard mysterious superhuman organization with no governmental oversight. It uses its powers for good—good that typically includes fantastical and oddly specific vacation destinations, as well as amassing an army of superpowered female assassins. Like I said, standard stuff. But now, despite its gifts to humanity and doubtless excellent benefits package, the Regional Office is under attack. The higher-ups knew it was coming—having a team of oracles on hand has its perks—and they knew that the attack would come from the inside. But no one told middle management, and anyone that’s ever had an entry-level position knows how that particular story plays out.
Manuel Gonzales does not pull any punches in his debut novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack!. Innocent office workers will be killed, revenge will be enacted, and teenagers will learn that they should never pick career paths at such an early age, especially when that career is assassin-hood. With cutting wit and non-stop action, The Regional Office is the funnest book I’ve read in ages, and is one of the most concise portrayals of office bureaucracy I’ve encountered outside of television series like The Office and Parks & Rec.
Of course, The Regional Office isn’t so much “about” bureaucracy, as it is a delight in its human elements. Sarah, a fiercely loyal manager at TRO, and Rose, a sharp-edged teenage assassin, are the two narrators of the organization’s downfall. Sarah, taken in by TRO’s co-founder Mr. Niles years prior, had been given the tools she needed to exact revenge on her mother’s killers: a list of names, a sinister explanation, and a mysterious and powerful robotic arm. Even now, as she is ignored or harassed by her employees, and treated like an office manager (what good is a robotic arm if it’s only used to refill ink cartridges?), Sarah wants to be a part of the important work TRO is doing. And what’s more: she’s good at her job.
Rose, meanwhile, was recruited years after Sarah, and not under the same cryptic, personal circumstances. In fact, apart from kicking ass at an above-average skill level, she leads a pretty typical high school life until two defectors from TRO recruit her to their army and charge her with the task of killing Mr. Niles. Her mission against TRO isn’t personal, but she wants to impress her peers and superiors—among them, circumstantially, a not-at-all-handsome young man named Henry.
Just as Sarah and Rose’s circumstances differ, so too do their voices: one is no-nonsense, honest, and thoughtful, the other with all the trappings of teen-dom: witty and devious, with that edge of desperation to belong. And between them, too, is a third, more “objective” narrator: a series of excerpts from a scholarly text called The Regional Office is Under Attack: Tracking the Rise and Fall of an American Institution, written by an unnamed and infuriatingly ambiguous author. Compared to the real joy I felt in reading Sarah and Rose’s sections, I initially disliked these excerpts; they feel in their first instances like expository glue, a way for Gonzales to squeeze in more plot between Sarah and Rose’s points-of-view. But while those points don’t necessarily change, my opinion of the overall narrative device did.
Gonzales ultimately uses this Third Narrator as a background world-building tool, gradually revealing life outside of the hyper-isolated Regional Office. Even more interesting is the way that this narrator blurs the lines between objective and subjective experiences; despite seeming to carry more authority than Sarah or Rose (it’s scholarly, after all, none of that pesky bias stuff), this account does what all historical accounts do, and feeds in constant speculation and unverified facts. In a story whose main concern is the human face of inhuman bureaucracy, this seemingly innocuous formal device does a great deal of work.
The blurb on the back of TRO describes Gonzales’ book as one that is “about revenge and allegiance and love,” but this is not entirely true. The Regional Office doesn’t really deal in sentimentality or Big Emotional Arcs, though it is far from cold or lacking in sincerity. Rather, Gonzales’ real project seems to be in the messy human stuff—the emotion, the petty betrayal—that lies beneath the humdrum of the everyday: the forms we fill out, the trips to IKEA, the menial promotions, and the annoyance and compassion we feel when we see interns sucking up to their managers. The characters in this novel are more relatable than they are loveable, too cruel and flawed to ever quite root for. But their voices—Gonzales’ voice—are so fresh and so funny, the pacing is so fast and crackling, you won’t be able to stop reading. This is not a Kafka-esque or DFW-style foray into the meaninglessness and boredom of working a 9-5 office job or going to the DMV. This one has jokes. And magic. And did I mention the cyborg?
The Regional Office is Under Attack! is available now from Riverhead Books.
Emily Nordling is a librarian and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.