Review: The Smile Factory by Todd Keisling

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here's a newsflash for you: office jobs are fucking mundane. Day in, day out, almost always the same. Sitting at the same desk, answering phone calls, going to meetings, typing e-mails, dealing with customers with various mental instabilities, psychotic tendencies, and degrees of entitlement, co-workers who drone on and on and on about their vapid, insignificant little lives. Stuck in a dead-end position, toiling away simply to make those stuck in higher positions than yours look good, so they can get raises, a new car, a bigger house, better vacations. And you do it all with a goddamn smile on your face because you have a mortgage, a car note, a family, bills to pay, food to buy. It's all such an endless cycle of monotony, every single day, same as the last, same as the next. Punch in, punch out. Rinse and repeat.

This is, in short, the perfect environment for hell to unfold. Shit, office life is practically a horror story already - trust me, I know. I've worked one kind of dead-end office job or another for almost exactly half my life now. Such dreary day-to-day mundanity is absolutely, positively ripe fodder for the scary books, but not one I see all that often. I know of J.F. Gonzalez's The Corporation (sadly unread at the time of this writing), and I'd be surprised if Bentley Little didn't have at least one book set in this playscape (The Store is the closest I can think of off-hand, with its retail hell setting). There's a few movies, too, like The Belko Experiment and Mayhem. Largely, though, the environs of any given office are far less exciting than zombies or vampiric sexy-times, and office romance or erotica books are a dime a dozen, but the potential for straight-up office horror stories is most certainly there. You could say it's an untapped market.

As a new hire of [REDACTED], you are greeted by the front desk security man who is giving you the inside scoop on legendary office worker, Marty Godot. We don't talk about Marty Godot. His name has been stricken from employee records, and everyone who worked with him, his associates and bosses, have all been promoted and never heard from again. We. Do. Not. Talk. About Marty Godot. You must wear your smiling mask and you must live only to serve [REDACTED]. [REDACTED] is your life now.

Todd Keisling, a writer I would suspect is an office drone simpatico or at least woefully familiar of such a life, recognizes just how much existential terror lives at the core of every office building in America. The Smile Factory, a slim novelette published in chapbook form (and ebook), is easily one of the most scarily honest depictions of office life I've encountered, all wrapped up in a writhing, worm-infested, tentacled snare of cosmic horror.

The Smile Factory is wonderfully satirical, but also deeply honest. A lot of office drones will read this and shrug it off with a chuckle to make themselves feel better, to feel separated from the truths Keisling lays down. Me? This sucker feels awfully fucking familiar on way too many uncomfortable fronts. I've seen too many similar cultish depictions and fetishizations of corporatism to dismiss The Smile Factory as anything other than an accurate and faithful depiction of modern American work-life in all its savagely hostile and soul-sucking underpinnings. Keisling obviously exaggerates things with his Eldritch depictions here, but only just barely.

The Smile Factory is a super quick read, only about thirty pages, so short enough to read over a lunch break presuming you are allowed to detach yourself from your terminal and find that your eyes aren't bleeding too profusely from a day of idly staring at a computer screen. Depending on how much you love your office life, though, reading this on your break will either help you crumble into despair or remind you to keep smiling and let your misery feed the world. Either way, it's a damn enjoyable read. Just remember two things.

Keep smiling.

Don't ask about Marty Godot.

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.


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