The Short Version: In a subsidiary office of a major Latin American corporation, the power has been shut off. A band of misfit employees remain, often terrorized by reality or their imaginations, and one sets out to document the experience using only the stamp set at his desk.
The Review: The novel’s brevity belies its potency. This is the sort of book that you could read in under an hour, under a half hour in all likelihood. Each page is a single stamp of no more than 90 characters (often quite a bit fewer) centered – or center-ish – on the page. It’s impossible not to speed through.
And yet something about it demands more time than you’re likely going to give it, at least at first. Perhaps this need, this desire to fill out the book’s background, comes from all that blank space on the page. After all, a book of stamps is bound to be largely blank – and so your mind, even subconsciously, begins to consider how it might fill that space. Not literally but metaphorically, I mean.
We’re in an office, somewhere in Latin America. A notice has been sent out to employees that the power will be cut during the day and that employees must remain at their workstations and the company isn’t responsible for anything that may happen during the outage. If you’re like me, you immediately started thinking that this sounds like the setup for a horror movie – and in some ways, that’s very much what this is. There are vicious dogs that attack characters, there are chases down hallways, there are people who disappear out of the beam of a flashlight and can’t be found again. But the horror is entirely in your mind, in those blank spaces around the edges of the pages – and I think that’s Celedón’s point. He wants to give you – if I may – just enough space to roam that when you reach out for the edge of the wall and find nothing, you have a moment of sheer bloody panic.
The stamps themselves make the book a beautiful sort of art-object – apparently they were all created with stamps bought at a library sale and it’s rather remarkable just how much mileage he’s able to get out of these plain old desk stamps. A change in ink color, a sudden bloody (or is it just red ink?) thumbprint, the occasional smudge or outline of the edge of the stamp… these things all evoke certain emotions that you wouldn’t expect from, you know, a smudge or a bit of additional ink, but that well up as you’re reading.
I was reminded throughout – and perhaps this is why I feel so haunted by this novel and believe it to have such a spooky freakin’ goal in mind – of Manuel Gonzales’ The Regional Office is Under Attack!, specifically the middle section that features the second-person plural office-assault horrors from the point of view not of the superhuman main players but the ordinary office drones caught up in a maelstrom of blood and violence that shakes them to their core. This book felt like it was giving us just the faintest outlines of another such experience – and there are hints, at least as I think about them, that this has all happened before, too. It seems odd or at least coincidental that all of the characters have some handicap or deficiency (e.g. the narrator is color-blind and there is a deaf girl and a mute girl and a man with one arm) and I imagine that some of those injuries may’ve come from previous moments at the office? If this is, indeed, an office at all? Could it be somewhere else entirely?
Maybe. I suppose that depends on how deep down the rabbit hole of your own brain you’d like to go…
Rating: 4 out of 5. The object of the book is beautiful and the schtick of being told entirely through office stamps and ephemera is a solid one that doesn’t outstay its welcome… but there’s a sense of missing something throughout the entire book. We’re shown this strange, absurd, scary circumstance but not given enough information to totally comprehend it. As such, our minds begin to fill in the spaces (both literal and metaphorical) and so your experience of this book might be far different from mine. Perhaps that is the goal.