December 23, 2021


The Office Is a Beautiful Place When Everyone Else Works from Home: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     Have you ever considered the plight of cartoon characters during the COVID-19 pandemic? Not the cartoonists – the characters. Yes, cartoonists have issues of their own, since their strips must be turned in weeks or a month in advance, sometimes even more, and any reference to COVID-19 matters may be obsolete by the time a strip is actually used. But that is a small matter in comparison to the issues faced by cartoon characters, whose actions and reactions during the pandemic must make sense when their strips first appear and must continue to be readily understandable in the future, when the pandemic is but a distant, horrible memory. Hopefully this will not be too far in the future, but who knows?

     Any comic strip that focuses on family matters, for example, has to deal with how the cartoon children are educated during the pandemic, how (indeed, if) they have playdates, what their parents do to cope, how the kids interact with non-parental adults such as grandparents, and so on. But even these familial depredations pale beside the plight of Scott Adams’ character Dilbert and his associates – because the entire Dilbert strip is built around in-office white-collar corporate life, the exact element of everyday existence in society that largely ceased to exist in early 2020, has never returned to its pre-pandemic form, and may in fact be changed forever (at least to some extent). What can poor Dilbert do?

     It turns out that he can do quite a bit, thanks to Adams’ creativity in the latest Dilbert collection, aptly if lengthily titled The Office Is a Beautiful Place When Everyone Else Works from Home. For example, the book’s cover shows Dilbert in an otherwise empty office, wearing a surgical mask over his nose and mouth. Well, it may be over his mouth, but since Dilbert does not actually have a mouth – except under extreme duress in occasional strips – it is hard to be sure. The basic notion of office happiness depending on the absence of co-workers, though, comes through clearly. In fact, it is doubly clear in the strips in this collection that are not pandemic-related – that is, ones in which Dilbert, prior to work-at-home necessities, does have to deal with co-workers. There is, for example, the strip in which Dilbert says a co-worker should ask if he needs help, the co-worker says he needs so much of it that Dilbert needs to come in at 8:00 a.m. and work late, and Dilbert has no choice but to explain, “This is awkward, but I didn’t mean a word of what I said.” See? The problem with in-office work is that there are other people in the office.

     Dilbert gets stuck with this other-people stuff a lot, and not just with co-workers. There are also vendors, such as the one who says the network upgrade will take three months, to which Dilbert replies that the job bid said it would take 30 days, which leads the vendor to reply, “If we’re allocating blame, I’m not the one who was dumb enough to believe me.”

     Ah, but then there is pandemic life, which proves to be comparatively wonderful. True, Dogbert is unhappy at having Dilbert under foot…err, under paw…all day, but Dilbert gets a nice couch on which to work instead of his usual fabric-covered box, and the absence of the sociopaths in other cubicles produces both contentment and productivity. In fact, COVID-19 may just be the best thing that has happened to the Dilbertian workplace. That is, until pandemic life gets infected by pre-pandemic life, in the form of the Pointy Haired Boss (who hires a stalker to peek in employees’ windows to be sure they are really working). And then there are the effects of social media (which prove even more addictive during the pandemic than before). And the effects of pandemic-specific items (speaking of addictions: hand sanitizer). It turns out that no matter which way Dilbert and his colleagues (or co-victims) turn, the same old problems come up again and again – except when new problems take their place. It is all enormously depressing, as if the pandemic itself weren’t depressing enough. But here’s the thing: it is not depressing to follow the pandemic miserableness of Dilbert, and Adams’ other characters, even when they are experiencing things that, in the non-cartoon world, lie somewhere between horrible and awful. There is something curiously refreshing about the basic lesson of The Office Is a Beautiful Place When Everyone Else Works from Home. And that lesson is that no matter how much things change externally in the workplace, and no matter what evil viral stuff is threatening everyone’s internal workings, the machinations of everyday corporate life will find a way to come through pretty much as they always have. True, that means things will be pretty awful for the cartoon characters subjected to this particular form of surreality, but they suffer for the greater good of lessening the suffering of all the pandemic-afflicted workers who do not have the good (or bad) fortune to have their lives chronicled by Scott Adams. It turns out that whatever new miseries COVID-19 may bring, the old miseries remain in place, lurking in the background just as viruses sometimes do in the body, biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to re-emerge and plague the continuing existence of cartoon characters – and those who follow their misadventures.

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