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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gross Margin

Laurent Quintreau

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To purchase Gross Margin

Title: Gross Margin
Author: Laurent Quintreau
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 118 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Gross Margin - US
Gross Margin - UK
Gross Margin - Canada
Marge brute - Canada
Marge brute - France
Und morgen bin ich dran: Das Meeting - Deutschland
  • French title: Marge brute
  • Translated by Polly McLean

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Our Assessment:

B : quite well done monologues of the circles of executive hell

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 16/4/2009 Gisa Funck
The Independent . 25/7/2008 Katy Guest
The Observer . 23/3/2008 Francesca Segal
The Spectator . 18/6/2008 Christian House

  From the Reviews:
  • "Quintreaus Reigen der Verdammten bestätigt zwar durchaus das schlechte Image vom skrupellosen Manager, das nach dem amerikanischen Bankencrash wahrscheinlich präsenter ist denn je. Anders als die Zyniker Houellebecq und Beigbeder aber gefällt sich der Autor nicht in der Rolle des schwarzmalenden Apokalyptikers, dem es vorrangig darum geht, das Monströse im Marktgläubigen hervorzukehren. In seinem Meeting gibt es auch die Möglichkeit der Erlösung. (...) Quintreaus humorvolles und leidenschaftliches Plädoyer für den freien Willen ist spannend geschrieben und klug konstruiert." - Gisa Funck, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The book caused Le Monde's reviewer to "howl with laughter", but clearly the French have a subtly different sense of humour. The 11 sharp vignettes contained in this slim volume are many things -- dark, philosophical, depressing, provocative, harsh -- and Polly McLean's translation makes light work of the free-associating tumble of language. But either something is missing in the translation of "the dissemination of revolutionary ideas in the work of Marx and Lenin"; or the French critic was easily amused." - Katy Guest, The Independent

  • "(A) little slip of a novel that proves office life is equally ripe for sending up across the Channel." - Francesca Segal, The Observer

  • "This is a corporate environment where executive gall comes with a bitter blast of gauloises. Inside, 11 executives battle it out. Their inner monologues rather than vocal arguments inform the story and the translation flows easily. We’ve seen The Office deconstruct the workplace with aplomb and American Psycho examine post-modern machismo; well Gross Margin cunningly combines the laughs of the former with the acidity of the latter." - Christian House, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gross Margin is a Dantesque eleven-voice tour of executive hell, the thoughts of each of eleven executives revealed in turn in interior monologues as they sit through a meeting, nine of them tortured by their infernal thoughts, one in purgatory, and one -- conveniently named Alighieri -- quite at peace with himself and the world in a bit of paradise.
       Like Lydie Salvayre, Quintreau focuses on the internal voice of his characters, each one's obsessive and often rambling thoughts taking in some of what goes on around them but ultimately only concerned with themselves. Also like Salvayre, Quintreau is satirically critical of French-style capitalism and workplace conditions (though he can't quite match the biting humor of her best novel, The Award).
       There's little talk of what the company actually does and how it can offer better service or products: all that matters is the bottom line. Everyone is encouraged to be creative in finding ways of cutting staff (and that at the lowest possible cost -- redundancies are an expensive proposition under French labor laws) -- and almost everyone is worried about hanging on to their own jobs. Bringing in business -- and new clients -- is a top priority, and they worry that they can't bring in enough.
       Job insecurity eats away at most of them, and physical complaints are common. (Several -- male and female -- also fight the urge to scratch at their itchy genitals, while another complains of haemorrhoids ("I'm bleeding constantly, it's become quite intolerable").)
       They lament how times have changed, looking back at:

the seventies, the thirty-year boom, that blessed time when you could quit one job and find another paid twice as much the next day, and have sex without being taken to court, our era is quite tragic, so morose, so tough, such hard work, the struggle to find a job, to keep it, or find another if you lose it, domestic violence, demanding women who spend their lives pointing out your failings and making you feel like a loser, an immature, neurotic loser
       Some still have some hope (or the illusion of hope):
this is my second firm and it's exactly the same story, pain and resentment at every level, there's still time to turn back, branch off, OK, fine, branch off, but towards what, I could finish my dissertation, yeah, why not, finish my dissertation -- or start it at least -- and then a doctorate, easy
       But the corporate culture and its demands are clearly crushing: one executive recalls that he "did a history thesis on the dissemination of revolutionary ideas in the work of Marx and Proudhon" but admits:
I no longer read, don't have the time, what was the last one, oh yes, The Da Vinci Code, almost a year ago, a good, intelligent esoteric thriller, no, not quite a year, it was during the Christmas holidays, five months then, but since that nothing
       This being France, the corporate world looks a bit different. There's room for an executive who participated: "in an anarcho-socialist movement related to the Red Brigades", for example, and while this is not the generation of '68 many clearly had more leftist leanings and interests that they now feel they have sold out (for better and, largely, worse).
       Quintreau is emphatically from the other side -- in fact, he's a true-blue real-life trade unionist -- but while he is highly critical of boardroom ways and corporate culture, he is sympathetic to (some of) the executives' human failings (as the meeting offers not just a glimpse of corporate leadership but of the petty and personal conflicts that arise at any gathering, especially when there is turf to be fought over). Quintreau does offer a few specific digs (and self-defenses ...), as when he has one executive think:
I couldn't do a trade unionist, they're so full of themselves, always busy protesting, demanding, attacking, I'd rather an executive
       (Need less to say, the personal lives of nearly all these executives are fairly dismal.)
       Another sees what Quintreau implicitly suggests is the admirable side of trade unionism, too:
if I hadn't been so high up I'd have been a trade unionist, just for the pleasure of pissing him off, attacking him in the courts, shoving his vileness in his face without being fired, would have been a trade unionist so I was protected, untouchable, hated by the management and despised by my own colleagues, banned from pay rises, left out of promotions, a slave to social rights, representing justice in a lawless universe
       The relatively short monologues offer enough variety to easily maintain reader-interest -- and there is a progression through the circles of hell, leading also to brief glimpses of Purgatory and even Paradise ("what joy to be here" the last man standing thinks -- which wouldn't occur to the others), which rounds the otherwise grim tale off well. The characters are quite well formed, given their limited time on center stage (though each also fills in some information about some of the others).
       Quintreau's corporate criticism is quite well done -- most of it indirect enough (focused on the personal toll it takes) that it is quite effective. For American readers Gross Margin offers a glimpse of something quite foreign, as French corporate culture (and business law) differ considerably from the American; nevertheless, there are many universals here, too.
       The translation by Polly McLean is also a solid one, the run-on thoughts well-presented, and not too much of the original lost along the way.
       An amusing and quite successful look at the modern workplace.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 January 2010

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Gross Margin: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Laurent Quintreau is a French author.

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