By Tom Holt
Reviewed by Alan Green
Offices are weird places at the best of times. All those people trapped in the same place, day after day, shuffling bits of paper around, trying to look busy, playing solitaire, snatching guilty glances at the clock and arguing about whose turn it is to make the tea. In The Portable Door Tom Holt has taken that world, added a little touch of magic and then given it a good shaking. The result is an enjoyable fantasy adventure that cleverly mocks the monotony and sheer oddness of office life.
Have you ever had a really boring job? A job so mind numbingly dull that anything that interrupts the tedium comes as a welcome relief? If you have then identifying with the hapless hero of this comic fantasy shouldn’t be too difficult. Paul Carpenter is not a stereotypical fantasy hero. He is a man who squelches through life like a half drowned puppy, who is expecting to get a boot in the face any minute now. He passes the time by failing to get jobs and by falling in love with any woman who stands still for long enough, and doesn’t actually spit at him or recoil in horror.
Despite his lack of any obvious hero potential it soon becomes clear that Paul is a man touched by destiny, or possibly by Gilbert and Sullivan. Either way he is about to be dragged out of his rut. Following a particularly embarrassing job interview he is shocked to discover that the prestigious city firm J.W Wells has decided to employ him as a junior clerk. For a fleeting moment it seems that things are actually beginning to get better for our unlikely hero but it soon becomes clear that his troubles have only just begun.
At the start of his office career Paul has a few minor problems that he needs to sort out. For starters he isn’t entirely sure what the company actually does and he suspects that asking someone might make him look slightly stupid. To make matters worse even he can tell that his new bosses are a little bit…unusual.
The layout of the building seems to change from moment to moment. There is always an implausibly sexy secretary on the reception desk, but he never sees the same one twice. Someone seems to have let a huge dog run around the building. Certainly something with large claws has been attacking the furnishings.
All offices have photocopiers that act like rabid wild animals. JW Wells is no exception but here the beasts can be tamed if you know the right soothing words. That’s a useful trick. I wish I knew the secret of photocopier whispering.
The mysterious disappearing long stapler is also a staple of office life (sorry about the pun) but the JW Wells model goes to ever more extreme lengths to elude its masters.
Argumentative stationary is to be expected, the company’s strict hours are much weirder. Everyone HAS to be out of the building before half five and If you turn up before nine o’clock red eyes glare at you through the letterbox. This is a city firm that doesn’t let people work long hours? That really is suspicious.
Despite the eccentric setting the actual work Paul has to do is initially incredibly dull. He spends the first few weeks sorting piles of paper into order. Don’t worry that isn’t described in excessive detail.
Paul shares his office with another new employee. Sophie is cold, moody and unhealthily skinny. She is given to overanalysing relationships and choosing men on the grounds that they will annoy her mum. Naturally Paul is madly in love with her. Well all fantasy heroes need a love interest, he’s not a great catch himself and I did mention that he isn’t amazingly picky.
Paul and Sophie’s on, off, very off, kind of on, off, on, off, on but maybe it doesn’t count, relationship is one of the great love stories of our time, sort of.
Given the complexities of his work life Paul could do with his personal life being a bit quieter but it isn’t meant to be. He could probably cope with the emotional turmoil that Sophie plunges him into every time he thinks about her but the ambient weirdness of life at JW Wells keeps spilling over into the rest of his life. His manager’s amorous mother is desperate to get her claws into him. He doesn’t get any peace at night because he keeps dreaming about a room with no door, inhabited by two seriously bored Victorians. If he can’t sleep he has to spend his nights staring at the sword in a stone that someone has dumped in the middle of his flat.
It seems that there is no escape for Paul but all is not lost. Just when he is feeling hopelessly trapped he finds the titular portable door. A device that opens up new worlds for him and ultimately gives him a chance to set things right.
The Portable Door is the first instalment in a trilogy. Paul Carpenter’s adventures at JW Wells continue in In Your Dreams and Earth, Wind, Fire and Custard. The two sequels are both slightly faster paced than this novel. Tom Holt assumes that people have already read this one so he doesn’t spend anywhere near as much time setting up the basic premise.
Here at Monsta we try to keep spoilers down to an acceptable level so I’ve tried to avoid telling you too much about JW Wells’ secrets. Having said that the pleasure of this book comes from Paul’s stumbling but essentially heroic attempts to understand the situation, rather than the sense of confusion or mystery that it provokes in the reader. You will have fun trying to guess what’s going on but your guesses probably won’t be all that far off.
The wonderful world of admin is a place that clearly deserves to be explored and mocked in fiction far more than it actually is. There are so many genuine mysteries for writers to explore.
Why do photocopiers hate us so much?
And yet some people have a real knack with them, don’t they. What’s that about?
Is all this paperwork really necessary or are they just trying to keep us all busy?
Where has the stapler gone?
Whose turn is it to make the tea?
In The Portable Door Tom Holt makes a bold attempt at tackling a few of these vital questions. He manages to do so in a way that really brings out the humour and the insanity hidden in the mundanity. It’s sort of The Office with goblins. I knew that show was missing something.