“The Very Nice Box” Explores the Cultish Nature of Millennial Workplaces

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Eve Gleichman, left, and Laura Blackett, authors of The Very Nice Box (Photo credit: Maria Rutkoski,)

While reading the first pages of Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman’s new novel, The Very Nice Box, I felt slightly irritated. Engrossed in the book—which follows Ava Simon, a design engineer at a huge furniture company named STÄDA, who is still grieving the death of her fiancé Andie—I couldn’t quite pinpoint the exact sensation or emotion I was feeling (which went deeper than STÄDA’s similarities to IKEA). No, I hadn’t felt this while shopping for a new dresser. So when had I felt it? And why? I didn’t piece it together until Ava’s new boss, Mathew Putnam, practically forces her to download a therapy app named SHRNK. When Mat perkily tells Ava, “Now you can bring your problems to your SHRNK so you can bring your positivity to STÄDA,” it became clear that what I’d struggled to name was a strong feeling of dystopia, one I hadn’t felt since I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was 13.

Blackett and Gleichman are particularly good at describing the cultish nature of millennial workplace culture by exposing the hollow roots of toxic wellness jargon. Through Mat—who romantically and doggedly pursues the grieving Ava with his positive obsession—the debut authors capture the irritating constancy of a particular kind of white cishet male presence in all our lives. Mathew—the single t in his name is just one of the masterfully created irritants embodied by this character—is perhaps The Very Nice Box’s best feat of engineering. He’s constantly committing what Blackett and Gleichman call “small crimes.” Blackett tells Bitch that these are “moments where people are so focused on their own self-interest that they stumble past some sort of social boundary.”

Despite his constant disregard for it, society bends to Mat, and in some ways, so does the reader. Mat is incredibly annoying, we never quite trust him, and we can still clearly see the romantic and sexual allure he possesses. He’s that white cishet man who’s purposely coasting through life on 3 percent battery life, knowing that someone will always be there with a charger and whatever else he might need. He belongs to “Good Guys,” a self-help group/healing circle/fraternity, which Ava believes is a men’s rights organization. Most readers should run screaming from Mat the minute Good Guys comes up, but then the dystopia settles in and you realize groups like this are everywhere. You were surrounded by them in college. You see them online constantly. So you shrug and keep reading, never quite as scared of Mat—or of STÄDA—as you probably should be.

Together, this produced a sense of dystopia I’d not felt since I read about the Thought Police. The biggest difference, however, is that, despite some eerie similarities, the Orwellian world was foreign to me. The world that Blackett and Gleichman have created in The Very Nice Box is the one I’m living in. I could’ve easily crawled into Ava’s STÄDA-resplendent life, snuggled into her Principled Bed, eaten spaghetti carbonara with her Useful Fork, and assigned myself a corporate personality color. Ava is blue for analytical, and I like to think I’d be assigned yellow for outgoing and that I’d attach it to my email signature.

This book’s uncanny nature is what makes it so damn smart and also more than a little terrifying. Because, as easily identifiable as Ava’s world is to many of us (especially those who’ve been enmeshed in corporate or nonprofit work cultures), it’s also pretty identifiable as being cult-adjacent, or even a full-fledged cult. When I mention how it reminded me of 1984 during our interview, both writers look momentarily startled, perhaps not knowing if it was a compliment or not. They didn’t set out to write a dystopia, or romance, or satire, or tragedy, or even to write incisive social commentary on queerness, toxic masculinity, and workplace culture. They just wanted to write a straightforward suspense novel, although they acknowledge that The Very Nice Box quickly grew beyond that.

But the novel isn’t a dystopia, a romance, a satire, a tragedy, or perhaps even a suspense. (Though it most definitely provides incisive social commentary on queerness, toxic masculinity, and workplace culture.) But it does all of these things very well, a literary accomplishment that some might call genre-bending, but I’m choosing to simply call it fantastic engineering. Genre-bending usually implies some kind of intentionality on the writer’s part—that they set out or at some point discovered they wanted to Frankenstein bits of literary techniques together. Blackett, a woodworker, and Gleichman just did what the book demanded of them, creating something that’s fluid and instinctual—like the perfect STÄDA boxes Ava’s spent much of her adult life creating—with plot points that feel mapped out with mathematical precision. Gleichman says that writing The Very Nice Box was the best part of her day. You can feel that shining through the text with loving intention and delight.

The cover of the Plastic issue of Bitch magazine with the text

What stuck out to me is how organic the book is. It breathes on its own. Honestly, it reminded me of STÄDA furniture—functional, knows what it is, and knows what it’s doing.

Eve Gleichman: That’s maybe the nicest thing anybody has said about the book. Thank you. One thing I’m thinking about now is how Laura was really good at moving big parts of the book or making stuff happen. And I would come in after with the fine sander to get the sentences really tight. We were both working underneath the car the whole time. That’s a terrible way to say that, but we were doing different things, going over each other’s work, and just collaborating at every stage in the planning, writing, and revising.

I also feel like the book has such a dystopian feeling.

EG: I don’t think we set out to write dystopia. We set out to write a straightforward suspense, and of course that’s not what it turned out to be at all. We didn’t even really know anything about Ava as a character, except the way she behaved and her neuroses—the way she broke her day up into these [30 minute] units, and the fact that when she was stressed out, she would just have to think about a screwdriver fitting into a screw and turning slowly. And that she was so closed off. Then we got really curious about her. We just thought, “Where can we put this character that will really rub against her? What other characters can we introduce Ava to who will really get under her skin?” That’s how we found STÄDA and Mat Putnam. I think the combination of STÄDA, Mat, and Good Guys creates that dystopia you’re describing. I’m sure a version of Good Guys exists out there.

Laura Blackett: With STÄDA, we [wondered], “What world can we put Ava in that’s going to be the most against the grain for her?” I saw it as one of these contemporary tech offices that we see a lot of—Silicon Valley comes to mind—but like extremely extroverted, obsessed with team spirit, and constantly trying to get Ava to reveal her innermost, truest self to them. But she’s just there to work. We had fun with that for sure. We also tried to make [STÄDA] a place that was somewhat appealing in a way. Hopefully you read it and were like, “I wonder what color I would be assigned to?” A generous reading of this kind of workplace culture trend is that the modern tech company understands how much its employees are giving it in terms of time and wants to do their best to do right by those employees. The more sinister reading is that they’re actually creating a structure where you think it’s your idea to come in early and stay late because you’re getting breakfast, lunch, and dinner there. It’s this appealing world until you realize you really can’t leave it.

EG: That’s terrifying. Then Good Guys is a related nightmare where these guys are genuinely there for self-improvement purposes. They really think they’re going in there to better themselves, they go through whatever convoluted machine they’ve created for themselves, and they become absolved on the other end. These men have done bad things and instead of just facing their discomfort, they’ve twisted the narrative for themselves. They’ve become the hero of their stories.

Good Guys does what a lot of wellness-centered stuff does. Instead of improving you, it seems to exist to validate the worst things you’ve ever done. There’s no pushback—so many things that sound good but aren’t really very substantive.

EG: Right. Sometimes it’s important to feel like a shitty person for a second and go through it. You’ll survive. You don’t have to be the hero all the time. Mat is unable to deal with his guilt. How far is he going to go to not have to face his guilt? You get the answer to that pretty fast.

There’s this part of the book where Ava is at work and she just wonders, “Am I in a cult?” Do you think a lot of people would benefit from asking themselves that question?

LB: Yes. People can benefit from asking themselves, “What is this current I’m in? Where is it taking me? Is it a place I want to go?”

EG: I think that what Ava’s resisting is letting the new STÄDA, with all these gimmicks, be a part of her identity. I see that a lot, where people really identify with their gimmicky corporate workplaces. Ava is just like, “Whoa, there is actually a gap between who I am and who you want me to be.” And that’s maybe where the culty feeling [comes from]—when people readily accept this identity.

The Very Nice Box by Laura Beckett and Eve Gleichman (Photo credit: Courtesy of HMH Books)

It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been through it. When I was working at a nonprofit, I started changing my mannerisms and the way I spoke, and I started putting up with stuff that I would normally never put up with. The pushback that I got when I was no longer willing to make this place a primary part of my identity or my decision-making was … interesting.

LB: I would guess that this workplace also used this kind of language—you and your team as a “family.” Then it becomes kind of an excuse to ask you to do more. Work turns into a family dinner.

EG: It reminds me of going to a party and being offered a drink and being like, “I’m good.” People who are drinking have a hard time with that. “What do you mean? You need a drink.” Something similar is going on with people who create this atmosphere where you have to love work and work is your family. If somebody rejects that or resists like Ava does, it’s a threat to their own identity. They think, “What does it say about me if I feel at home here and work is part of who I am?”

Toward the end of the book, we see something much darker. But until then, Mat is so familiar and ordinary. I know Mat. I’ve seen Mat. I’ve dated Mat. I’m married to Mat. Mat’s sleeping right next to me. What does it say about toxic masculinity that right up until the climax of this book, Mat is a character we’ve all, especially women and queer people, so often come across? And yet the ending is so dark.

EG: In some cases, people are really rooting for the romance to work between [Ava and Mat]. He’s really drawing Ava out of her shell and softening her. We’ve had some readers say, “This is so cute. This romance is really getting me.” But he’s just committing small crimes left and right. He doesn’t even notice it. He’s coasting through life, thanks to white male entitlement.

LB: Eve, you had a good metaphor for this the other day. It’s like he’s got a long train on his wedding dress and everybody else is holding it up and making sure it doesn’t get dirty. But he doesn’t even see the people holding it up.

EG: It’s so infuriating. You can sort of accept these small crimes, these little things that he gets away with, on an individual basis. Everyone is flawed. But cumulatively, these small crimes add up to Mat Putnam. But just as we didn’t set out to write a satire or a romance or anything besides suspense, we also weren’t trying to write a book about toxic masculinity. We were really trying to see who we could put in a room with Ava that was just going to immediately create friction and drama on the page. And it was him. He’s everything she’s not; he moves around confidently and easily.

LB: She’s attracted to him because he’s handsome but also because she kind of wants to be a little bit more like him. In some ways, he’s the perfect cog for the machine that is STÄDA. And she really likes to watch things that work well, fit well, and function well. And in that setting, Mat is the most graceful man. Obviously, he’s graceful because he’s in this culture that is letting him slide—his white male entitlement is moving him through the world like a knife through butter or something. We had fun writing a character that wasn’t this super jealous, macho guy. In fact, he’s committed to introspection and self-improvement, but in a way that’s leading him to cause a lot of harm that’s invisible to a lot of the people around him. It’s a kind of toxic masculinity that I don’t know that we always have a great way of talking about.

EG: That’s really true. And back to what Laura said about Ava wanting to be like Mat, I’m sure she wants a piece of that. I’m sure she would rather not have to think about gears turning to calm herself down or ruminate when she makes a mistake. I’m sure she doesn’t want to be in this prison of neuroses and trauma. She would love to move around as easily as he does.

Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman are particularly good at describing the cultish nature of millennial workplace culture by exposing the hollow roots of toxic wellness jargon.

So much of romantic attraction is about wanting to be that other person because they bring something into your life. Actually, sometimes it’s a really healthy part of our relationships. I think Ava touches on that because being with Mat taught her that she was lonely and wanted to broaden her world.

EG: I’m just thinking about what [Nylah] said before: “What do we deserve in our relationships? And what does Ava deserve?” I’m just now thinking for the first time about the fact that Andie—who we only really see in the flashbacks—does have this ease about her and moves through the world in a similar way to Mat, minus causing lots of problems for other people. Maybe Ava’s looking for that flavor again. Then she ends up with someone [who isn’t good for her.]

Andie is an example of a positive masculine energy. Mat is obviously not a positive example. When I hear straight cis women say, “I wish I were a lesbian. I wish I were with a girl,” I think, “No, you don’t. You wish you were with a better man.”

EG: In a way, I do feel sorry sometimes for cis straight people who will just excitedly announce something that their boyfriend did that we do on the daily. I’m trying to think of an example; something to the tune of like, “Brad cooked dinner tonight!”

He changed a diaper!” “He wished my mom a happy birthday!” Normal human behavior that becomes amazing when a cishet man does it. It’s very strange. What do you hope readers get out of this book?

EG: I hope the ride was fun, along with being terrifying. I hope we wrote something that wasn’t completely weighed down by toxic masculinity. I hope it’s just…popcorny fun.

LB: The best thing I hear is readers saying they couldn’t put it down. I want people to be entertained and have fun because we had so much fun writing it. I hope that energy comes through on the page.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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