Manuel Gonzales’s novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! — newly out in paperback — belongs to a genre I loosely define as “literary deconstructions of science fiction and fantasy/action-adventure tropes.”
That’s the genre where the Grossman brothers live, both Lev, with his what-if-Harry-Potter-had-an-existential-crisis Magicians novels, and Austin, with his take on what drives the psychology of the mad scientist in Soon I Will Be Invincible. It’s where Jonathan Lethem does his gritty, superpowers-will-not-save-you-from-late-capitalism novels, like A Gambler’s Anatomy or The Fortress of Solitude.
Works that fall into this genre are not, exactly, magical realism. They are designed to interrogate and break apart the tropes that drive genre storytelling and make it so fun, and to integrate genre plotting with the psychological insight of literary fiction. When done right, they marry the best of both worlds: Every time you start to get bored with the characters’ self-indulgent wallowing in their own problems, there’s a dragon; just when you start to lose track of the characters’ psychologies, there’s an existential crisis.
In The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, Gonzales doesn’t quite hit the ideal balance. But he has a hell of a lot of fun trying.
The titular Regional Office is, as far as most of the world is aware, a high-class luxury travel agency. But if you are in the know, and you approach the front desk and inquire about a trip to Atlantis, they will send you to the sub-sub-sub basements. There, you will meet Sarah O’Harah, the woman who is rumored to have a mechanical arm. Sarah will listen to your problems — whether they involve prophecies, shadowy global conspiracies, or any number of assorted forces of darkness — and she will have the Regional Office, its Oracles, and the superpowered young women whom the Office employs take care of it.
As the novel begins, the Regional Office is (surprise!) under attack, by mysterious forces. The story’s point of view toggles back and forth between Sarah, having the worst workday of her life; Rose, one of the superpowered young women infiltrating the office; and the bewildered office drones who previously had no idea they were anyone’s cover. Periodically, we get updates from an academic paper on the history and founding of the Regional Office, and how its history led up to its inevitable fall.
The beauty of this setup is that it allows The Regional Office to be a workplace novel with life-and-death stakes. When you start to get sick of Rose Die Hard-ing her way through an air vent into the building, bam, there are some employees snidely commenting on their inter-office rivalries as they half-heartedly work out an escape plan. (One of them tries to pretend he actually does have a plan, but his co-workers know better: “He obviously had no fucking clue what to do next but was trying to make it sound like he was unknotting some thorny but brilliant plan. We let him at it with the sad understanding that this delusional activity was all the glue holding poor William together.” Don’t we all know a William?) And when you get sick of the office politics, boom, there’s a bionic woman showing up to kick some ass.
The book’s fundamental weakness is that it is so arch, so rich with post-modern irony, that it has a hard time finding a well of sincerity. When it does manage to be sincere, it’s heart-stopping — the end of the employee interlude, when the collective “we” becomes a singular “I,” is killer — but mostly, it keeps its characters at a polite distance. For all its rote literary psychological examinations, the novel can’t quite take them seriously, and so neither can we. Which means that The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is stuck at the level of “a whole lot of fun,” instead of being as inventive and transcendent as its opening pages suggest it might become.
Still, “a whole lot of fun” is nothing to take for granted in a book. The Regional Office Is Under Attack! might not quite live up to its potential, but as it is, it’s a frothy and ass-kicking delight that’s a pure pleasure to read.