Action movies aren’t what they used to be. Sure, computer imaging has helped Hollywood create some of the craziest action sequences imaginable, but when CGI replaces less technical gimmicks like intrigue, strong characters, and good old-fashioned explosions, what is 80s action nostalgia?
Author Manuel Gonzales may have the answer The regional office is under attack!which I recommend to anyone who prefers to get their summer movie fix on paper – and who craves that rare mix of wacky action and phenomenal character introspection.
This review contains a few spoilers, not least the title of the book. The Regional Bureau is a secret organization disguised as a boutique travel agency that sends an army of young female superheroes to battle the ‘forces of darkness’, including zombies, alien invaders and mad scientists.
Trouble begins when a few members of the Regional Office form a rogue splinter group in an attempt to take out their former colleagues. Their attack starts on page one, so there’s no waiting for the fireworks to start, no setup, no throat clearing except for a short prologue explaining what exactly the regional office is. Most of The regional office is under attack! is the attack on the Regional Office.
Rose and Sarah are on opposite sides of the battle. Rose is a troubled young girl who, at the beginning of the novel, is about to lead the attack’s most crucial mission. Sarah, meanwhile, is an administrator of the regional office who was fitted with a robotic arm when she joined the organization, only to discover that no one likes a cyborg. Both women yearn for unattainable men. Rose has a crush on her boss, who betrayed the regional office for the sake of another woman. Sarah is obsessed with the director of the Regional Office, who turns out to have cheated her in all sorts of ways.
The best way I can describe The Regional Office is “That hard meets Kill Billwith some Charlie Kaufman and David Cronenberg.” Badass women shoot, fight, run and hide in a locked office, all mixed with wry humor, body horror, random weirdness and wild setpieces.
The funny thing is that Gonzales is best known for his critically acclaimed collection of short stories, The Miniature Woman and Other Stories, which I once described as “like reading Kafka on ketamine.” Gonzales tells those stories with a huge dose of irony and distance from his characters, usually exploring quirky premises with a dark humor reminiscent of George Saunders. But for his first full-length novel, Gonzales ditches some of the surrealism and irony to embrace the premise of his action movie. As good as his story collection is, The Regional Office is even more entertaining and wild, but still delivers a powerful dose of character-driven storytelling. The writing is still sneaky and wonderfully weird, but it also sucks you into the story of two women locked in an ultra-violent, bitter war. Along the way, we get flashbacks showing how both Rose and Sarah got to where they are.
Interspersed with the action are clips from a documentary about the history of the regional office, which fills in the backstory and makes harrowing revelations towards the end of the book. And then there’s a lengthy first-person account from a random office worker who got caught up in the carnage and truly believes this is just a boutique travel agency. The “Office” in it The regional office is under attack! actually matters: Gonzales is relentless when it comes to picking apart every kind of office politics, from the abuse of interns to the ways office hierarchies can become toxic. Look past the ninjas and the paratroopers and you might recognize your own workplace.
Characters talk about it openly That hard in the middle of most That hard-influenced section, and in general, The regional office is under attack! is very metafictional. This works because the players’ movie fandom ties into the plot in satisfying ways. The founder of the regional office, a woman named Oyemi, finds three women with psychic powers and turns them into oracles that warn of impending threats. KY Jelly, with cables going from their heads to a wall of computers. Yes, just like Minority Report. Rather than weirdness for weirdness’s sake, all crazy things come organically from what someone might think during an extreme situation.
Without giving too much away, The Regional Office ultimately becomes an exploration of post-humanity and the price of being ‘special’. Rose’s cyborg arm is just one more way people in this story give up their humanity – and since I already mentioned David Cronenberg, it’s a given that some intense body horror happens along the way. The Regional Office is both a larger-than-life entertainment about superpowered assassins, secret organizations, bizarre magic and superscience, while at the same time being an intimate story about flawed people who have given up more than they realize.