When I saw previews for the movie version of Paranoia a couple weeks ago, I thought, “I believe I read that book last winter. Something about a self-centered jerk who got caught in the middle of corporate espionage between even bigger self-centered jerks, and I didn’t really care what happened to him or anyone else at the end.”
Yep, that was the one. I am apparently an outlier: critics seemed to like the book quite a bit, and audiences lapped it up (it was a NYT best-seller; the hardcover version went through four printings). Though the trailer for the recently released movie looks good, it’s getting a 3% from critics and a 39% from the audience at Rotten Tomatoes. I guess the trailer is the best part.
This review will only cover the book, which differs from the movie in both appropriateness (for a YA novel, there was a surprising amount of R-rated material) and plot.
Adam is a childish, self-centered slacker who has no idea what to do with his life other than make easy money, get laid, and drink himself into happiness (or forgetfulness). It’s not a roadmap for success. He works for Trion, a large corporation that apparently hires anyone. Frustrated by the impersonal nature of the company, he impersonates the VP for Corporate Events and caters a retirement party – to the tune of $78,000 dollars. Once he’s busted, he finds out that his little prank could earn him 30 -50 years in prison and a one million dollar fine. He spins a yarn about the retiree being his dying father. It doesn’t work, but it does highlight his ability to lie egregiously and convincingly.
This would be a downer to his employers, but not when the employers are soulless. Who better to infiltrate their competitors than a low-level con artist who can’t cover his tracks? Not to worry. As his corporate espionage coach tells him, “You’re a natural, Adam. You’re going to do just fine.” She was right – Adam is really good. But she was wrong about him doing just fine.
In spite of its flaws, there was an important lesson in Paranoia struggling valiantly to make a point. Early on, Adam is challenged with the theme of the book:
“Everyone’s got to be passionate about something, or they’re not worth sh**. You’re obviously not passionate about your work, so what are you passionate about?”
Adam’s a young man with no passion and no sense of identity. He can’t stand who his father was or what he has become, but his father has at least one thing going for him (and I’m cleaning up the dialogue): “At least I know who I am. You don’t know who you are.” Just to clarify the level to which the success bar has been raised: be passionate about something, and know who you are. Sadly, even these vague standards would be a huge accomplishment for Adam at this point in his life.
He continues to hear this message from his mentors in corporate espionage. Goddard complains about “people who move up in life and start changing everything about themselves until you can’t recognize the original anymore.” That’s either an ironic comment, or a really sad window into the life of Goddard. Either way, Adam thinks this applies to him. I’m not sure why. He’s doing what he’s always done. All that’s changed are the stakes.
When Adam eventually locates his conscience, Judith tries to persuade him to stay in the corporate espionage life by citing the value of finding yourself:
“You’re hurt, you’re angry. You feel betrayed, manipulated. You want to retreat into the comforting, secure, protective anger of a small child. It’s totally understandable – we all feel the same way sometimes. But now it’s time to put away childish things. You see, you haven’t fallen into something. You’ve found yourself. It’s all good, Adam.”
It’s not all good, of course. Even Adam doesn’t want to find that kind of person when he looks inside. To his credit, he literally walks away from the moral cesspool that is Trion. If there is anything akin to moral growth in his character, it’s when he draws this long overdue and pretty vague line in the sand. I suppose some progress is better than none.
This brings us to the final scene in the book. His girlfriend, Alana, pulls up in her Austin Mini Cooper to give him a ride as he is walking down the road away from Trion. She was part of the espionage, of course. She’d been giving him a ride all along. She had befriended him, slept with him, lived with him, and supposedly fell in love with him, but it was all part of the game.
“God, don’t take it so seriously, Adam!” she complains when he turns down the ride. ”It’s just sex. And business. What’s wrong with that?” As Adam stumbles away, lost and alone but not yet desperate enough to respond to her offer, she tries one last time:
“Oh, come on,” she said, her voice like velvet, suggesting everything, promising nothing. “Will you just get in the car?”
Aaaannnnnnndddd…. fade to black. That was the end of the book. After all the discussion about Adam finding himself and being passionate about something – anything, really, it didn’t even have to be worthwhile – the ending suggests that whichever way he chooses, he will at least do it knowing who he really is. He may even be passionate about it. And since the line is only in sand, it should be easy to move.
Much like Alana, the book suggested a lot. It could have been a morality tale about deceit and greed. It could have been a warning against materialism and self-absorption. In spite of a lot of unsettling details, the overall story arc set up a pretty good parable about the importance of integrity.
Unfortunately, Paranoia ultimately provides very little moral clarity or direction other than “be true to yourself.” Alana might represent all that is duplicitous, callous, and destructive, but… she’s gorgeous. She wants Adam. And she has an Austin Mini Cooper. I suspect Adam will just get in the car.
Some YA readers (or viewers) may realize that the story ends in despair; that’s a good place for us to pick up the discussion and provide an ending that points toward repentance and redemption.
(This article was originally posted at http://empiresandmangers.blogspot.com/2013/08/joseph-finders-paranoia-review.html)
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