January 05, 2017


I’m No Scientist, but I Think Feng Shui Is Part of the Answer: A “Dilbert” Collection. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     Year after year, things just get weirder – and more understandable at the same time – in the world of Scott Adams’ Dilbert. The comic strip is a kind of Kafka for the post-industrial age, with “knowledge workers” whose knowledge is largely irrelevant to the people who actually run things and make the workers’ lives into a series of unending frustrations, small and large (and sometimes extra-large). Unlike Kafka’s feckless and doomed protagonists, the characters in Dilbert have nothing as final as a horrible, lonely, demeaning death to look forward to: they are doomed to continue in the same unending hamster wheel of meaningless work pretty much forever. It is not Hell, exactly, but neither is it Purgatory, since that comes with some hope, however faint, of eventual release. There is no such hope here – and that explains the ways in which Adams’ characters have changed over the years, becoming more and more assertive in their misery through full awareness of the fact that what they say and how they behave will make no more difference than how they feel.

     The deliberately surrealistic elements of Dilbert fit this not-quite-alternative world well: the robot co-worker who shows up at meetings, is always on the verge of taking someone’s job, occasionally reads news headlines, and becomes less-well-adjusted when given an artificial soul; bright red Catbert and his endless human-resources schemes to make the human characters’ lives worse; the bullet-headed (and, thanks to a compliant Board of Directors, bulletproof) CEO; Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light, somehow a far more fitting overseer of this domain than an out-and-out devilish prince of darkness would be; and of course the Pointy Haired Boss, long ago revealed to be Phil’s brother, his hair resembling the devil’s horns and his personality leaving open the possibility that perhaps there is an out-and-out devil here after all – a singularly unintelligent one, to be sure, but also one of unceasing, small-scale, nitpicky malevolence. Dilbert hits the nail on the head when, in one strip here, he reminds hyper-cynical Dogbert that “my life is an endless string of useless tasks orchestrated by idiots.” Yep, that about covers it.

     The latest Dilbert collection uses plenty of up-to-the-minute jargon and fads to make its usual demotivating points. Demotivation is the literal effect when the company injects nanorobots into Wally’s blood to make him a better employee: his anti-work-ethic bloodstream destroys them all. On the Dilbert side of things, Adams’ title character begins each day with a suitable corporate affirmation: “Gaaaa!!! My life is meaningless and nothing I do will ever matter!!!” (He then starts to work, with his usual diligence and misplaced determination.) Super-competent Alice is asked by the Pointy-Haired Boss to mentor girls interested in STEM careers, and refuses because it is sexist to ask a woman to do the task – so the PHB gets Wally to do it instead, and he creates gender balance by telling boys “to pursue restaurant work because it’s a better way to meet women.” Perpetual intern Asok, who is from India, is accused by the PHB of being a terrorist because of his skin color – and when he responds that the PHB is being racist, the PHB reasonably (for him) asks, “Is it more of a sympathizer situation?” Speaking of which, a coworker asks Dilbert for advice when her son wants an ear piercing, and Dilbert says it seems like no big deal; then the son wants a small tattoo, and Dilbert says that seems all right if it doesn’t show; and so on until the son joins the ISIS murder cult and Dilbert says he “forgot to mention that I’m not good at giving advice.”

     In these strips and many others, Adams shows that he keeps up with the news and the latest corporate babblespeak: one Sunday strip is packed in all its panels with such terms as “uberize the slide deck,” “trans-domain kick-off,” “disintermediating,” and “growth-hack the analytics.” Everything, no matter how meaningless, filters down to the hapless pawns in the Dilbert universe, skewed just enough to fit their miserable world and make it just a bit more rotten. But Adams always makes sure that readers understand this is the business world, which has its own skewed ways of handling reality – for instance, when Dilbert runs tests that show the company’s product underperforming competitors’ in nine measurements out of 11, the PHB says, “Give the two good ones to Marketing. We can’t be more honest than that.” And when the PHB refuses to give Dilbert a raise, he explains that Dilbert’s performance was only average, based on comparing him “to imaginary people doing your exact job.” That certainly sounds corporate.

     In recent months, Adams has given guest artists a chance to draw Dilbert when Adams has taken time off – a neat, Wally-ish way of doing even less work than usual while still getting full credit for meeting all deadlines (Adams still writes the “vacation” strips). Readers can judge for themselves how well this works in I’m No Scientist, but I Think Feng Shui Is Part of the Answer, which contains strips by John Glynn, Eric Scott, Josh Shipley and others. Readers who prefer any of these drawings to Adams’ own will have to wait for Adams’ next vacation (actually a chance to rest his drawing hand) to see more of them. Interestingly, although the quality of the cartooning has never been a major attraction of Dilbert, these “vacation” strips do show that Adams’ style has evolved to a point where it is instantly recognizable and not easy to surpass, or even approximate. Once a “niche” comic strip, Dilbert has turned into something more: a strip that seems to encapsulate the modern feeling of being on an endless, demeaning treadmill at work, with no way off and no way out because, after all, every other company has just as endless and demeaning a treadmill of a workplace as yours. If Adams did not make the situation so funny, it would be at least pathetic, at most genuinely chilling – which is to say, Kafka-esque.

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