In novelist Floyd Kemske’s white-collar universe, work isn’t just hard — it’s draining. Literally.
Kemske’s most recent book, Human Resources, concerns a troubled biotech company, Biomethods Inc., and its visionary new CEO, Pierce, who is smart, humane — and a vampire. Pierce cuts through the company’s ossifying bureaucracy, develops new markets, and empowers his people. He also occasionally snacks on the necks of his more promising young executives, turning them into undead drones. If you’ve been through a “turnaround” lately, you may be wondering why your neck hurts — or why your CEO has the office blinds drawn so tightly.
For the creator of this button-down bloodsucker, the metaphor of boss-as-vampire is just another day at the office. Indeed, Floyd Kemske’s view of the relationship between manager and managed might be a little bleak even for, say, Franz Kafka. After all, the urbane vampire at the head of Biomethods Inc. is the book’s hero.
“My sympathies were with Pierce,” the author says blandly. “Even though he was somewhat brutal in his methods, I still thought the organization was behaving with too much inertia.”
Every revolution needs its naysayers, its wet blankets, its steely-eyed cynics who see through the cheerleading and cant. The first great wave of industrialization had Ned Ludd and his followers. The French Revolution had Edmund Burke. And today’s technological and managerial revolution has Floyd Kemske.
A quietly engaging 48-year-old who looks exactly like the “obscure novelist” he describes himself as, Kemske has pioneered a one-man genre: the “corporate nightmare.” In three novels published over the last four years (all by Catbird Press of North Haven, Connecticut), Kemske describes a fantastic but all-too-recognizable world — part Stephen King, part “One-Minute Manager” — in which business is only the staging area for the most primitive human terrors, drives, and longings.
In “Lifetime Employment” (1992), a company’s employees find that the quickest way to the top is to kill their manager. The protagonist of “The Virtual Boss” (1993) is a devilish software program — an expert system of emotions — that drives workers to maximum productivity by exploiting their greatest hopes and deepest fears.
Kemske’s darkly funny tales are parables about power, alienation, and failure. “Most people who write have a really warped view of the workplace,” he says. “Anybody who wants to write about business writes about greed, which is really stupid. That’s the smallest motivator in business.” What really matters, Kemske believes, are back-brain bogies like fear, lust, humiliation — all more potent and primal than money or fame.
Although Kemske writes mainly for laughs, his insights into the pathologies of power give his books a serious, almost tragic, edge. This dour take on business comes from his own experience. At age 16 he visited vocational counselors at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, still one of the country’s leading occupational testers, and took the aptitude tests that were a rite of passage in the Kemske family; his parents, siblings (even his wife) have all taken them.
“They tested everything — everything,” he remembers. “The tests took three days. They made us put little pins into holes with tweezers, then they made us put little pins in holes without tweezers. They made us fit wiggly blocks together; they made us finish diagrams that have things missing from them.”
Young Kemske was handed a report describing his attributes and aptitudes. The conclusion: his “objective” personality was suited to a managerial career. There followed nearly 20 unhappy years editing a series of specialty magazines and managing their staffs. Kemske found to his sorrow that he had the intelligence to be a boss, but not the temperament.
His formative moment as an artist came after one particularly painful managerial experience. Working for a Boston-based business publisher, Kemske dutifully built an art and editorial division from nothing to more than a dozen people. But the company faltered, and he had to dismantle everything, gradually firing everyone he had hired along the way. The experience left him deeply depressed about both the burdens of management and his ability to master them.
Indeed, one of the great unspoken truths of business, Kemske believes, is that it is far better to have a boss than to be one. “I thought I had to become a manager to avoid being managed,” he recalls. “But they could have brought in anyone short of a lunatic, and it would have been better than my having to do it.”
The tortured manager found his way onto the therapist’s couch and out of the business world. His life since has been a kind of seminar on the new world of work — how a hardworking cog in the corporate machine finds happiness by flipping the “off” switch. These days, between novels, Kemske runs a freelance direct-mail and graphics business out of his home in Pepperell, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and an enormous 19-month-old Great Pyrenees named Travis.
Kemske’s provocative insights have yet to translate into fame and fortune. While his books attract favorable reviews (whenever they attract reviewers), none has made it to a second printing. Kemske, however, says he has no regrets about abandoning a steady paycheck, paid vacations, and water-cooler gossip.
“Sometimes things get bad for me, and I wonder if my income is going to be as high as I projected,” he says. “But as bad as it ever gets, I remind myself it could get worse: I could have a job.”
Peter Carbonara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and TV producer living in Brookline, Massachusetts.