“Orientation,” Daniel Orozco’s short story in the form of a new employee’s tour through an unnamed office, was published in 1994, the year before the debut of The Drew Carey Show. Like Carey, Orozco looked at modern American corporate culture, with its emphasis on “team playing” and “organizational character,” and saw a fiefdom whose obscure hierarchies, codes of conduct, rivalries and alliances were ripe for lampooning. “Isn’t the world a funny place?” the narrator wonders aloud to the newbie, lacing explications of kitchenette and photocopier protocol with the exploits of pencil-pushers like John LaFountaine, who is “harmless, his forays into the forbidden territory of the women’s room simply a benign thrill, a faint blip on the dull, flat line of his life,” and Kevin Howard, an exceptional typist with a sideline gig as a serial killer. “Not in the ha-ha sense, of course.”
With the deadpan rhythm of a stand-up act, or a laugh track–tailored sitcom, “Orientation” is funny in exactly the ha-ha sense, and it’s not hard to understand why Orozco’s vision of the absurdity lurking in even the most mundane cubicles struck a chord. “Orientation” was included in the 1995 edition of The Best American Short Stories and broadcast on This American Life, but after sixteen years, and seven seasons of the American Office, Orozco’s sendup of the corporate grind has lost much of its bite, thanks to the success of the genre it helped usher in. Though each of the nine pieces that make up Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber; $23) has appeared in a magazine or literary review over the course of the past decade and a half, the collection is Orozco’s first. There’s no way around this lateness: the book suffers from having been beaten to its own punch line a few times too many. The zingers launched at the ironies and contorted logic of professional life—“if you let on, you may be let go”; “if you ever said no, you never worked again”—no longer have zest; the characters plucked from the lower rungs of the working ladder, from inarticulate warehouse loaders to shy, perfectionist temps, wobble on the line between emblematic Everymen and stock types, clever enough but worn all the same.
There are exceptions. In “Somoza’s Dream,” the best piece in the collection, the deposed Nicaraguan dictator fritters away his exile in Paraguay, taking his nightly piss on the wall of the US Embassy as his would-be assassins go about stockpiling their arsenal. Part farce, part zany action flick, the story breathes without feeling crafted to a fault. It’s driven by imagination pure and simple rather than the sense of mission—to bring to light the kinds of lives Orozco seems to fear will go overlooked—that encumbers much of the book. For Orozco, washed-up tyrants and small-town cops, cookie-binging women and stoic bridge painters are all, as he writes of the crowd on a rush-hour bus, part of the same “stew of human heat, dank and thick and close.” It’s a pungent image, but most of his narratives are too tidily packaged to give more than a cursory sense of the stew’s mess and joy. “Only Connect,” urges the title of one tale late in the collection. Strapped to the story like a sandwich board, E.M. Forster’s challenge registers as an advertisement for an idea, not the idea itself. What should have been Orientation’s theme instead ossifies into a talking point.