YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Book Review : Plot-Heavy Novel Focuses on 'I,' the Speech Writer

January 15, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Chronicles of Doodah by George Lee Walker (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95)

"The Chronicles of Doodah" is an anti-Utopia; a fictional form that had its glory days with the likes of Huxley's "Brave New World" and Orwell's "1984," but has not been widely practiced since; science-fiction apart.

The author, George Lee Walker, has spent much of his life in or about Detroit; a great company-store of an area where the companies make automobiles and are the biggest things around. In attempting his nightmare version of the future, it is logical that Walker has seen it in terms of a giant, all-embracing corporation.

The protagonist, identified only as "I," is a speech writer of minor rank and major anxiety in the corporation's public relations department. It is not clear where the corporation is located, though its headquarters is a great glass and steel complex in some featureless green suburb. Nor do we learn what it produces; apart from pressures, rewards and a monstrous sense of hierarchy for those who work for it.

Produces Speeches

What "I" produces, of course, is speeches; or rather, notions of speeches. By the time any speech is actually delivered by one of the lofty denizens of the upper floors--vice presidents, the president or that supreme being, the chairman--they have been brainstormed, dissected, reassembled, thrown away, dug up and rewritten. "I" and his fellow workers have all the job satisfaction of an amino acid which, after random transformations, may or may not become Genghis Khan's left earlobe.

Not only is "I" nameless; he is also featureless. He has a wife outside, but outside doesn't really exist. All that exists for him is his days in the corporation, a twitchy and complaining co-worker, Conrad, a powerful and arbitrary boss, Marott, and a whole featureless hierarchy above.

"I" is torn between ambition and complaint. Odd things begin to happen to him. Returning to his office one day, he finds a large dog occupying his chair. Retrieving some speech material from the chairman's office, he is surrounded by pigeons. He delivers some work to Marott's house one night. Getting no reply to the doorbell, he peers into the window and sees a crowd of people watching a videotape that features himself.

He is being groomed for something: promotion or disgrace. A beautiful colleague seduces him in her office; the seduction is filmed. He is dispatched to locate a comic rubber mask for the chairman to slip on at the climax of a speech. Such importance is attached to the mission that he is given a company limousine. When it breaks down, another is sent to replace it; and when that one is stranded, a helicopter is sent out.

Attitude Needs Rebuilding

Finally, "I" is summoned by his bosses. He has been seen slouching and twitching; his attitude needs rebuilding. The rebuilding, in fact, is a long brainwashing that includes physical punishment, drilling in the Executive Smile and the Executive Stance, and assignments in corporate ruthlessness. After a climactic ordeal--he is required to kill someone--"I" makes it to the top.

There is much more to the plot than that. There is not, unfortunately, much more to the book than the plot.

"Doodah"--Conrad's word for the speeches they ghost--is loosely written, and even more loosely assembled. The episodes succeed each other haphazardly, and few of them come to any kind of life. The dog, the pigeons, the descriptions of the hierarchy, the pointlessness and inanity of the corporate life are parody with very little energy. The book fails to establish that spooky sense of an alternative and deranged reality that anti-Utopias need if they are to be effective.

None of the shadowy executives has any distinctiveness, apart from an occasional physical description or a mood or two. And "I" has no emotional or moral dimensions either; he gives no focus to the corporate monstrosity he is describing. He goes through it limply from beginning to end.

Walker has been a speech writer, variously for George Romney, Lee Iaccoca and Gerald Ford. His point is pointlessness; a point that a speech writer for automobile executives and politicians is in an excellent position to make. But his theme and his vision are almost indistinguishable. The world of "Doodah" radiates no greater tangible interest or prophetic chill than the Ten Goals for the Decade in the peroration of any corporate chairman's ghosted speech.

Los Angeles Times Articles