I like to define Try Catch Finally as either "corporate satire" or "bullshit noir." It exposes and amplifies the gradual calamity of spending your career at a "big old dinosaur" corporation. It is thematically similar to Dilbert and Office Space, but with a darker and more modern perspective on the madness of "the corporate system" with its many selectively-enforced rules, meaningless consequences, and unearned rewards. The more faith you put into these kinds of social systems, the more it hurts when they fail to deliver on their promises.
The main character is Halleck, a Gen-X American man of ambiguous ethnicity who works as a Systems Analyst for a wildly dysfunctional IT megacorporation named Ligence Advanced Silicon Technologies. When he learns of an upcoming round of layoffs, he proactively looks for a new job, and finds one at an exciting tech startup. The problem is, when "Chainsaw Friday" finally arrives, Halleck is the only person in his department who isn't laid-off. He can't legally quit and start his new job immediately because he's trapped by a non-compete agreement that he doesn't even remember signing when he joined Ligence ten years ago. So he sets out to find the corporate overlords who spared him, with the hope that he can convince them that he's useless enough to be laid-off. But the problem is much larger than Halleck imagined, and soon he finds himself in the middle of an inter-departmental war among a triumvirate of greedy C-level executives, each trying to siphon off a larger share of the company's endless resources.
The book's title is derived from the error handling features in high-level programming languages.
The Stories Behind The Story
This is the first novel I've written since The Hero, back in 2013. I'd actually been working on a different novel (which is still unfinished) when my day job as an IT technical writer started to go sideways, and I began collecting ideas and notes for what would become Try Catch Finally. I didn't get serious about making it into a book until I got sucked into the bullshit singularity at the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer.
I'd heard tales of corporate madness from friends and relatives who worked for General Motors, Eastman Kodak, and Xerox, when those companies were at their most powerful (and wasteful). My father, uncle, and grandfather spent decades at Kodak, and the stories they told about corporate waste were incredible. The CEO ordered the tradesman to build a pool in his back yard, using company time and materials; engineering teams held meetings to discuss reducing the number of meetings; the digital camera was invented in Kodak's engineering labs, then dismissed by upper management as worthless because it did not use film; the company solicited process improvements and suggestions from employees, then terminated or transferred them to avoid paying them for their ideas. I was never an employee there, but I did spend two weeks doing contract work at the empty husk of the once-mighty Kodak Elmgrove plant, which covered 5 million square feet and at its peak employed 24,000 people (not counting an equal number at the main Kodak Park facility, and about 100,000 more at other offices outside of the Rochester, NY headquarters). Specifically I was contracted by Epson to fix scanners for Kodak-branded photo enhancement kiosk machines. That was 1999 or 2000, I think, and by that point there were only a few hundred Kodak employees left in a handful of functional areas. Everything else was abandoned. Kodak actually didn't own the Elmgrove complex anymore -- it had sold it to some other company and was leasing parts of it back. Every day at a certain time, all the lights would go off for a second or so; employees told me that this was some scheme to save money on electricity.
I had a stack of about 1000 scanners to fix for those kiosks, but there was a protracted fight as to where I was allowed to work. One manager put me in an abandoned clean-room, then another manager came by and yelled at me for being there, and moved me to a meeting room, then I got kicked out of the meeting room by someone else. Meanwhile, the lack of working scanners caused the entire assembly line to shut down, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour. The line workers got paid to sit around and play cards while I got paid to move from one room to another because of petty rivalries among middle managers who controlled empty rooms in a mostly-abandoned factory complex. It was insane from my perspective, but as any Kodak employee from the '80s or '90s can tell you in vivid detail, this antagonism and wastefulness wasn't an unfortunate consequence of a bad situation; it was in the DNA of the company culture. It had made too much money for too long, and bred a hyper-political management class that valued loyalty and discouraged overperformance.
That short contract aside, I did not work for a large corporation until I was in my early 30s, when I moved across the country to write engineering documentation for The Apollo Education Group. You probably haven't heard of it, but you have heard of its biggest product: The University of Phoenix. At the time, the company had around 10,000 employees at several campuses, mostly in and around the Valley of the Sun. I came from the small-business world, so Apollo was a bit of a culture shock for me. There were a few people there who were excited about their work, but for the most part the company was composed of long-term employees who didn't care about anything, didn't do much of value, and were excellent at deflecting blame and punting responsibility. If you came to them with a question about their projects or to get their input on something, they would bog you down in circular processes, unnecessary approvals, and unreturned emails. They would schedule meetings in rooms that you didn't have access to, they seemed to answer to no one and never got in trouble for anything. They just sat there and collected paychecks, week after week, for many years. I could not believe it. The startups and small businesses I'd worked for would have crumbled with even one of these leeches on staff, let alone entire groups, floors, or even departments full of them.
And yet, like Kodak prior to its spectacular implosion, Apollo Education made money in spite of itself. It had no meaningful competition, and income was guaranteed (in the form of student loans). It began to unravel shortly after I got there. The federal government was starting to question why it was guaranteeing student loans to for-profit universities with low graduation rates and poor post-degree job placement. At the same time, traditional brick-and-mortar institutions were starting to offer more classes online, and online education startups were popping up in the Silicon Valley. Also like Kodak, Apollo Education had lost its ability to adapt because it evolved to thrive in an environment devoid of predators. That's when the layoffs started.
I walked into work one morning and there was a line for the main entrance to the floor I worked on. I thought maybe there was a problem with the badge reader, but when I got to the front of the line I found two security guards verifying badge access. If you got the red light, you were laid-off, and they tossed your badge into a cardboard box, handed you some papers, and you were told to come back at a specific time after the workday was over so that you could get a box with the items that used to be on/in your desk. These layoffs and re-orgs happened almost every quarter. The survivors moved to new desks, floors, and buildings often enough that we began to suspect that one of the C-level executives owned a controlling interest in the corporate moving company that handled the materials and logistics of these relocations. It wasn't such a far-fetched idea, considering a high-level IT manager had already been caught outsourcing to his own offshore development shop.
Before that, my only real layoff experience was at a tech startup. About 6 months after I started, I walked into work and was immediately pulled into an unscheduled mandatory all-hands meeting in the training room (the largest room in the office). When we'd sat down and settled in, the engineering director told us that everyone not in the room had been laid-off. One of the victims had just been hired two weeks prior, and had relocated his family from halfway across the country. These were not the usual small, surgical staff reductions that the company had done before; this was a big, ugly hack-job that had little to do with performance and everything to do with how much cash was left from the last round of investor funding. Since this massacre had a big impact on everything we were doing, it needed a nickname; thus the term "Chainsaw Thursday" was coined. (Most layoffs happen on Fridays, though, and I wanted to have a "start a new job on Monday" plot element, so it was moved up one day for Try Catch Finally).
I mention all this because a few readers have argued that Try Catch Finally's depiction of the "Chainsaw Friday" layoff scene is unrealistic. I realize that some companies do treat their workers with respect, and call in The Bobs or George Clooney to gently counsel and generously compensate those who've been made redundant, but that hasn't been my experience. The mass layoffs I've been through really do share a lot of the qualities of a mass murder: sudden, unannounced, violent, life-altering.
Ironically, the one time I was faced with a happy George Clooney layoff was at the next company I worked for after Apollo Education: Intel. I'd wanted to work at Intel since I was a teenager. I thought it would be my dream job, but it ended up being the worst experience of my career.
I was there on a short-term contract to help develop a shared-source documentation system. I remember being required to show up before dawn for special safety training at the Ocotillo fabrication facility (which I did not work at) in Arizona. I was the only writer in a room full of rugged tradesman who did Real Work For A Living. I spent several hours on the receiving end of antagonistic indoctrination about industrial safety practices that would never apply to me because they were specific to the fabs (again, I didn't work there -- I wasn't even allowed access to them). "Safety is a value at Intel," they drilled into us. The instructor pointed at me -- the only person in the room who was not wearing an article of clothing manufactured by Carhartt -- and demanded to know what one of my "values" was. It was a bullshit question about a bullshit topic relating to a place I was not allowed to go to use tools I'd never touch to do work I was not going to be doing. "I suppose I value my time," I replied, not having a solid definition for the word "value" in that context. Then they told us some of the many ways we could be immediately terminated. It felt like the prison intake scene in Cool Hand Luke, except the consequence was termination instead of spending a night in the box. If you didn't hold the handrail on the staircase, you would be immediately fired. If the security guards caught you driving over 5 MPH in the parking lot (yes, they had radar guns and conducted speed traps in the parking lot), you would be immediately fired. If someone tailgated you past the badge scanner, you would be immediately fired. If you didn't report bad smells to the safety hotline, you would be immediately fired. "You see this?" said the instructor. "What color is this badge?" We all replied in that special monotone reserved for rhetorical answers in classrooms: "Blue." "Now look at the badges we just gave you. What color are they?" "Green." "Do you know what that means?" The guy next to me replied: "It means we have to do what you say." "Exactly! You do not mess with a Blue Badge." Contractors had green-colored badges, real employees had blue-colored badges. We were told that Green Badges were entirely at the mercy of Blue Badge employees. We had to do everything they told us to do or we would be immediately fired. If there was a dispute of any kind -- threats, sexual harassment, violence -- the Blue Badge was always in the right and the Green Badge would be immediately fired. We were not just temporary workers, we were temporary people, the value of our humanity defined solely by the presence of yellow pigment on the plastic cards we were compelled to wear around our necks. It gave me a glimpse of what actual old-school racism must feel like.
Despite the initially bad experience in the pre-dawn hours at the Ocotillo fabrication plant, my time at the Chandler office complex was wonderful. I had never worked with such intelligent, hardworking, passionate people. For the first time in my life, I was excited to go to work every day, and I admired and respected my colleagues. They inspired me to set a higher standard for "going above and beyond" to bring success to our documentation library project. I received official and unofficial commendations and awards. My contract company called twice to tell me how Intel raved about my performance. They extended my contract a few times, and eventually created a new Blue Badge position specifically for me. A dream come true -- I'd get to be a real boy!
Due to losing out in the booming mobile device market and being over-invested in the shrinking desktop computing market, Intel decided to cut 10% of its workforce. It had somewhere around 110,000 employees worldwide at the time (not counting the huge number of Green Badge "contingent workers"). Seeing that estimated number made me wonder how large a corporation had to be before it lost the ability to give exact headcount numbers. Surely someone had died or resigned in a satellite office on the other side of the world, and HR hadn't processed the paperwork yet. So when it came time to cut payroll, the amount of reduction had to be estimated as well.
My bosses assured me that I would not be affected by the layoffs; our department and my contract were safe, and my Blue Badge job rec was still in the process of being created. However, many of the technical writers I worked with in other departments related to mobile system-on-chip development were facing "redeployment," which is Intel's cute term for a layoff. Every big IT company has a euphemism for layoffs -- at Intel it was "redeployment," at IBM it was a "resource action." What it really means is that your job has been deleted, but the company wants to retain good employees, so they'll keep paying you for a few months while you look for other jobs in other departments. Company policy dictated that Blue Badges who were in redeployment would get priority consideration for all open positions at Intel. When my custom-made job rec was listed on the internal job board, one of those redeployed Blue Badge tech writers swooped in and took it before it could be offered to me. It was someone I knew fairly well and worked with on an almost daily basis, someone whose work I admired and respected, whom I'd gone out of my way to help on several occasions, someone who knew that I'd worked hard for a year with the goal of being hired. She literally stole my dream job.
My contract was supposed to go on for another two months, and I had a direct personal assurance from the department manager that it would not be prematurely cancelled, but I got a call at around 7:00 PM about a week later, telling me that my contract was terminated and that Intel demanded that I never speak to any of my former co-workers (several of whom had become friends) ever again. Despite all I'd done for her, the woman who stole my job apparently wasn't comfortable working with the person whose life she wrecked.
Behavior like this is not unusual in the "big old dinosaur" realm. Google is notorious for establishing sub-human status for contingent workers. At Intel, I'd seen contractors terminated and escorted out of the building by security, not because they screwed up, but because the budget had been revised during a morning meeting. Reviews on Glassdoor and other sites revealed hundreds of similar stories from former Intel Green Badges. Intel's policies stipulated that cancelled contracts of certain lengths would pay out certain amounts of severance -- I calculated that I should be due one month's pay as severance. The problem is, Intel had forced the contingent workforce provider (the company that technically employed me) to waive that policy. Intel created a policy to show that it wasn't evil, then evilly demanded that it be quietly nullified in the contract. It was all there in the stack of paperwork that I hadn't agreed with but was compelled to sign during my "safety training" at Ocotillo. I found myself unemployed with no severance or income at 7 PM on a weekday in November, in the lobby of a car dealership waiting for my car to be serviced, wondering if I could afford to make the next payment on it.
For a while I was incredibly hurt and angry about all of this because it obliterated the natural arc of an epic narrative of hardship and triumph. When I was a teenager in the 1990s, I built and fixed PCs for fun, and I thought it would be so cool to work at the company at the center of it all: Intel. While others drooled over the genius of Steve Jobs, I had idolized Gordon Moore. But bad things happened to me, and I dropped out of high school, and all of the adults around me told me that I no longer had a future; a place like Intel would never hire me because I didn't have a degree. I was a failure because I didn't go to college, they said. But I did get a job as an electronics technician, then as a computer parts salesman, then I became a technology journalist, then I wrote books on IT subjects, and then I found work as a technical writer and documentation manager. Without a degree and against the predictions and probabilities, I built a meaningful career as a professional writer. When I got that short contract at Intel, it felt like I'd beaten the odds and proven those teachers and relatives wrong. When that Blue Badge position was created for me at Intel, it felt like I'd broken the prophecy of eternal failure that had been foretold half a lifetime ago. But then I was terminated and excommunicated for reasons that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with permissive labor laws and oppressive corporate policies and a Machiavellian tech writer from the dismantled mobile computing group. The reasons didn't matter, though. Either way, the bastards had won. They wouldn't let me be a real boy after all.
I fell into a state of existential depression that lasted for years. What was the point of working hard for a corporation that treated me like a nobody who could be replaced by anybody? What was the point in working hard at anything anymore, if the reward could be snatched away at the last moment? Was it hubris? Had I flown too close to the sun, put too much faith in the magic armor of my idol, fooled myself to death with the false hope of the green light? I lost my car, my house, my health insurance, my retirement.
A few months after my contract was cancelled, the woman who'd stolen my Intel job sent me a LinkedIn connection invitation, which felt like a prolonged psychopathic effort to continue to harm me long after I'd been crushed and discarded. I thought about accepting it so that I could tell her exactly how much harm she'd done, let her know in detail how horrible she was. But what could I say that would repair the broken arc, make me feel like I'd avenged this abuse, belatedly stood up to the atrocity committed against my dignity and self-worth? What do you say to someone who has robbed you of the work you're passionate about, who has taken away your income and threatened your home and your health and your future? "You are a wretched piece of sub-human trash" wasn't good enough -- it wouldn't be news to her. "Everyone who ever loved you was wrong" wasn't good enough either -- such people don't have any regard for love. I left the invitation unanswered for a few weeks. It wasn't until I had a bizarrely negative interaction with a belligerent grocery store clerk that I finally found the one thing I could say that would truly communicate my feelings on the matter: "I hope you work here for the rest of your life."
If a company is evil, then evil people should be working there, and if that was my dream job, then I needed a better dream. Let my shattered blessing become her eternal curse.
I declined her invitation. What I wanted to say had become so much bigger than a private message on LinkedIn. That is when I began to write Try Catch Finally in earnest, but it sat unfinished for quite a while because I kept trying to complete the severed arc that I'd been denied in reality. I kept trying to make sense of the senseless Intel debacle, to trace the effect back to a definitive cause. I needed to identify a flaw that I could blame, then fix, then use to achieve redemption. Ultimately I had to accept that this was not a narrative, that you can follow all the rules and make no mistakes -- you can be perfect -- and still not win. It was the first time in my life that I was unable to create a narrative -- a system -- to make sense of my experience, to explain the context of failure with causes and effects. I could not finish writing Try Catch Finally until I realized that this system-making process was the core of my post-Intel anxiety and depression, and looking back, I saw that there had been thousands of other instances where I'd invented these cause-and-effect narratives. Sometimes they were useful and led to great self-improvement and growth, but more often they were detrimental and led to self-loathing and disengagement. Life is filled with unexplained screw-jobs and unearned punishments, and if you try to make sense of those things by blaming some aspect of yourself -- your actions, skills, decisions -- then you'll end up in a dark cycle that begins and ends with the shame of failure, with perfectionism and pride in the middle. It was the exact inverse of the problem that destroyed Eastman Kodak and Apollo Education: unexplained victories and unearned rewards led to validation of bad behaviors and formalization of broken processes.
The corporate world inspires these false narratives for itself and for us as individuals, with the implied cause-and-effect conditions of contracts, rules, licenses, guidelines, mission statements, mottos, metrics, and performance reviews. But we all know that certain rules are never enforced, policies can be waived, successes and failures can happen by accident, and no outcome is guaranteed until it actually arrives with proof. It only takes a little bit of complexity to dissolve the system, to reach a point where cause and effect are no longer connected because everything is politically fungible: mistakes, blame, responsibility, success, failure. You can do something that should have a big impact, but it doesn't; you can do something that shouldn't have any impact at all, but it does. You can break all the rules and never be punished; you can follow all the rules and still suffer the consequences of breaking them. If you try to make sense of it, you'll drive yourself crazy. It's madness. It's the bullshit singularity.
Approximately half of this book is dialogue, so the character voices and pacing were more challenging than usual. The narrative is third-person limited, from Halleck's perspective. For the narrator, I went with a mild Patrick Bateman: articulate, fast-paced, and slightly deadpan. It's a serious voice that sets up the comedic elements of the story and the dialogue perfectly.
Halleck's vocal model was John Cusack, which I've done before for the main character in Money Talks. It's difficult for me to do for very long because it's at the lower end of my vocal register. The name "Halleck" is more commonly a surname than a first name, and as far as I can tell it dates back to a US Civil War general, similar to the way the name "Gary" came into existence because Gary Cooper chose his stage name based on the town of Gary, Indiana. Hence, it is a perfectly American name that "comes from nowhere and means nothing."
Ray is a minor character with a lot of dialogue in the first chapter. I used Brian Doyle-Murray as a vocal model -- a voice I've used in many other projects. An interesting bit of trivia: everything Ray says in the parking lot is proven to be true throughout the course of the story. I cut some of his dialogue because I felt the parking lot scene ran too long. Specifically I removed his rant about the tyranny of the EPA, and Halleck reminding him that it was a lack of EPA enforcement that sickened and killed Ligence workers including Ray's father and uncle. Eastman Kodak did the same thing not only to its workers, but to several families in a residential neighborhood next to one of its factories.
Alix didn't have a specific vocal model. I thought of all of the women I've known who work in IT and made a conglomerate character out of the most memorable among them. Her median pitch is low, but still has a feminine musical quality. Alix is a real name -- a French translation of Alice -- and I chose it because it reminds me of AIX, which was IBM's Unix-based mainframe operating system, hence Halleck's impression of it sounding like "some kind of baroque operating system from the ‘90s that only ran on mainframes."
Grand Moff David oversees a department that was gutted by his rivals. He's old, bitter, in poor health, and he copes with the decades of corporate madness by escaping into Star Wars fandom. Obviously, then, he should sound like some of the old evil men in the Star Wars films. At first I wanted to make him sound like Peter Cushing, who played the first Grand Moff character in the Star Wars universe: Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing is more of the cold, calculated type, though. I wanted someone who was still simmering with rage over battles he'd lost long ago. That's more like Ian McDiarmid, who played Emperor Palpatine. Something about his voice sounds supernatural to me, like he was a corpse animated solely by the Dark Side of the Force. That's how I wanted Grand Moff David to sound, minus the British accent. It also reminded me of a creepy alien character named Duneedon (played by the late Sean Hewitt) from an obscure TV show from the 1980s called Read All About It. I haven't seen the show in at least 30 years, but that voice sticks with me -- high-pitched and cruel. To make him sound even older, I gave Grand Moff David a mild Trans-Atlantic accent, which was constructed in the early days of Hollywood "talking pictures" to make movie stars sound distinctive. If you watch any movie made before 1970 or so, Trans-Atlantic is the bizarre pseudo-British accent that most of the American actors have.
Mola Ram is an upper-class, middle-aged Indian man. That means his accent should be equal parts British and Hindu. Finding a vocal model for this was easy; any movie set in India and made before the golden age of Bollywood drew from the same 20 or so Indian actors, and they all have that British/Hindu accent. The one that stood out most to me was Saeed Jaffrey, whose performance I greatly enjoyed in the 1984 remake of W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. I cut a lot of material from this chapter because I felt that it went on too long about topics that weren't relevant to Halleck's quest. Specifically I cut a page or so where Mola Ram reveals that his greatest asset is racist Indian stereotyping, which he fuels through selective financing of popular media. I also cut a scene where Halleck discovers a room behind the security desk on the ground floor, where one of Mola Ram's employees is running a switchboard for people who want to call home to India for free via the company's support phone lines.
The Black Baron was the most difficult voice I've ever done. Since he's an orphan who was raised by travelling missionaries, his accent changes according to his mood and the topic of conversation. I sort of had James Earl Jones in mind in terms of tone and pace. Pretty much all of The Black Baron's dialogue is true as far as my research shows. There is a bizarre loophole in US law whereby someone born in Samoa is an American "national," but not an American "citizen." And truly, anyone of Aboriginal Australian descent could well be more distantly African than someone of European descent, due to modern theories on human migration. As a character, The Black Baron is the product of loopholes; ironically he is vehemently against them.
General Xerg is from Taiwan, so I spent hours watching YouTube videos of ordinary Taiwanese people speaking English. It was exceptionally difficult to learn, but like most other voices and accents, once I got the hang of it it was easy to slip into. The challenge is to get the voice down to the point where I don't have to think about how it sounds. When I get to that point, then I can focus on the dialogue and play the character. If Halleck's journey mirrors Dante's descent into hell in The Inferno, then Xerg is Satan in the middle of the lowest circle; by religiously breaking the rules, he becomes immune to the consequences. Chinese names don't usually translate well into English, so someone from China (or Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. -- whatever you consider "China" in its past or present form) may well create their own American name, which is what Xerg did. And he chose a word that sounds like Zerg, which is the name of the invasive and highly adaptable alien horde in Starcraft. Xerg's strategy for taking over Ligence is very much like a Zerg rush.
Rosen the sharky corporate HR lawyer sounds like he's from New York City because that's the universal accent of assholes. I didn't intend Rosen to represent an ethnicity, and it didn't occur to me until after I'd chosen the name that it could be interpreted as Jewish. It just seems to me that there are a disproportionate number of lawyers with the last name (or initial name segment) Rosen. So he's intended to be a stereotypical corporate lawyer who makes "the rules" look bigger and scarier than they actually are, but in no way is he intended to be stereotypically Jewish. None of the characters in this book are racial or ethnic stereotypes; in fact, they have been carefully designed to lampoon the concept of stereotyping. Stereotypes represent a rigid system, and the point of Try Catch Finally is that there is no system.
There wasn't anything new or unusual about the production techniques for Try Catch Finally. I used the standard Telephone EQ setting for phone conversations, but that's about it. I ran into some trouble with the General Xerg chapter because his dialogue gets loud sometimes. To avoid clipping out, I had to make some adjustments to the Limiter and do an extra pass with the Compressor afterward so that the rest of the chapter didn't sound too soft.
Try Catch Finally is a tale of corporate madness in which layoffs are rewards, screwing-up your work is better than doing it perfectly, and all of your support tickets get assigned back to you to fix. If you've ever been laid-off, or navigated the many circles of corporate hell, or even if you're just feeling bitter because the bastards have won again, then you'll appreciate the dark humor in Try Catch Finally.