Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., and other such superhero support institutions always seem to be set up in posh, high-tech digs with unlimited resources. Defying the limits of fiscal responsibility is every bit as much a superpower as the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but even the richest operation is still an operation. Someone has to handle the accounts payable, enter data into the mainframe, contract a janitorial firm, and order more Post-its. At this late stage in the exhaustion of the superhero genre, the people who do all of that administrative work are starting to seem a lot more interesting than the superheroes themselves.
Manuel Gonzales, author of the crackling new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, doesn’t, I’m guessing, see it exactly this way. His book features enough scenes of acrobatic combat and futuristic weaponry to suggest that stuff still elicits some thrills from him. Yet even in the midst of a smackdown, his characters can’t keep their minds on the action. The gravitational pull of real life draws them away from their pop-culture escapades again and again.
The Regional Office is Under Attack!—set in the underground headquarters of an organization deploying a team of “superpowered warrior women” to battle “the forces of darkness that threaten, at nearly every turn, the fate of the planet”—is fundamentally an office novel, a tale of the prosaic struggles of young adulthood, set, with deliciously rich irony, against a distant background of absurdly operatic adventure. It refers in passing to, say, the exploits of an operative known only as Gemini, renowned for “disrupting the Ring of Three and expanding her mouth into a vortex to swallow whole the swarm of bees set loose on Kansas by the warlock Harold Raines,” but it will never give you the full and perhaps rather tedious account of those events. The Regional Office Is Under Attack! repurposes the devices of a genre specializing in fantasies of mastery into a portrait of chastened adults moving through a world where mastery eludes us all.
The Regional Office fronts as a high-end Manhattan travel agency catering to billionaires in search of the sort of experience that’s more fun to talk about later than to actually do, like throwing a New Year’s Eve party in a submarine at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. In the novel, chapters framed as a faux scholarly history of the Regional Office and the eponymous attack on it alternate with chapters told from the points of view of two young women on either side. Rose, first seen directing a team of mercenaries and then rappelling down a ventilation shaft, is still in her teens and unrequitedly in love with Henry, the Regional Office’s amiable recruiter. Sarah, the loyal assistant to the executive director, Mr. Niles, has just rejected a secret overture from the perpetrators of the attack, which is evidently an inside job. Why these mutineers should want to destroy the Regional Office is a mystery only revealed at the novel’s end.
Flashbacks to Rose and Sarah’s introductions to the Regional Office complicate the narrative, and sometimes Gonzales’ prose gets lost in tangles of the past-perfect tense. But these are the best parts of the novel, astute examinations of how people search in school and at work for the sense of belonging they lack at home. Beneath her surly, profane crust, Rose is a bruised child, bored with her small Texas hometown and neglected by her parents. More than anything else she wants to be part of something worth being part of, and she arrives at the Regional Office’s training camp with her head full of initiation scenarios she’s seen in movies: The Karate Kid, An Officer and a Gentleman, even The Parent Trap. Instead of establishing herself as “the spitfire who constantly mouthed off and who would ultimately reveal herself to be pitted against her inner demons,” Rose encounters “overwhelming indifference” and an impenetrable clique of mean girls.
Sarah’s mother vanished when she was small, and the Regional Office draws her into its employ with the promise of vengeance. Although Sarah possesses no innate special powers, Mr. Niles takes an unaccountably keen interest in her, persuading her to let him replace her flesh-and-blood arm with an invincible mechanical replica made with “hyperadvanced nanotechnology.” Sarah’s co-workers, who dislike her, keep a pool going on which arm, if any, is the robot one. And although it’s not her job, “without fail, every single day someone would come to her with some stupid question about toner cartridges or to complain about that idiot intern Jacob, or to hand her a list of supplies the office had run out of. But whatever. Let those nitwits send her emails about resetting their voice mail passwords; she didn’t care.”
In a tour-de-force “interlude” placed at the center of the novel, Gonzales suddenly switches the point of view to these “nine-to-fivers,” as Sarah calls them. The narration also switches to the first-person plural, recalling Joshua Ferris’ tragicomic 2007 novel of workplace collectivity, Then We Came to the End. Only some of the staff know the true nature of their employer, but now they’re being held hostage in an office by black-clad gunmen, and the interlude recounts how an ever-dwindling number of them attempt to escape. Theirs is a wage-slaves’ chorus, bemoaning “our morning commutes and the drudgery of booking yearly world tours for snarky, overprivileged douchebags who own yachts big enough to contain every one of the possessions we’d crammed into our shitty apartments in Queens.” They behave badly, still mired in petty office rivalries and their resentment of a co-worker whose complaint about a funny but offensive video resulted in control software being installed on all their computers. But, unlike Rose and Sarah, they have each other, until they don’t, and inevitably that plural narrator gets whittled down to a singular.
Add it all up, and you’ve got two central characters, each with two different timelines and a nameless omniscient “historian” filling in all the background information. Then Gonzales tosses in this slightly uncanny “interlude,” which feels both artificial—because who really thinks and speaks collectively—and alarmingly realistic—because this, you sense, is the unflattering truth of how it really would go down in most hostage situations. It sounds like a crazy salad of a novel, but what binds the whole thing together is a persistent, self-contradictory human desire to both be extraordinary and to fit in, finally, somewhere.
The Regional Office Is Under Attack! sneaks up on you. It starts out looking like a heist yarn intertwined with a couple of origin stories, but it keeps coming back to the stuff people devour superhero comics and spy thrillers to escape: isolation, confusion, triviality, moral doubt. Even Mr. Niles, who only got mixed up in all this because his best friend from grade school talked him into it, has been having second thoughts about the enterprise. Like many a founder, he can’t figure out how his once-plucky startup managed to drift so far off track. Life is the stuff that Gonzales’ novel is made of, and reducing it to a battle between good and evil is a feat beyond even the powers of the warlock Harold Raines.
The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales. Riverhead.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.