Some Novels Put the Dramatic in the Bureaucratic

With my 91-year-old mother going through a difficult health period the past few months, I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy. I’ve sent dozens of forms and other stuff to home-health-aide agencies, hospitals, and an insurance company. I’ve exchanged countless phone calls, emails, and texts. I’ve been put on hold and shunted to other people. Etc.

Which of course means I’ve also been thinking about depictions of bureaucracy in literature — whether it be medical bureaucracy, legal bureaucracy, military bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy, governmental bureaucracy, or other versions of the “b” word.

It can be a fraught topic for a novel, because just the thought of bureaucracy can induce feelings in readers ranging from boredom to frustration to fury. So, when an author makes something compelling and perhaps funny out of all that, well, it’s pretty impressive. And it doesn’t hurt that characters slammed by bureaucracy almost always have our sympathy.

Of course, a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary, but there almost always seems to be too much of it! I guess it creates jobs, and gives some bureaucrats a feeling of power as they make life difficult for others. Plus lower bureaucrats are basically forced to be too bureaucratic by higher bureaucrats. (I added this paragraph after seeing and responding to J.J. McGrath’s thoughts in the comments section.)

So Much For That is among the novels that belong in this post. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s book touches many bases, with one of them the agony of dealing with America’s medical system. A system so inhumane, convoluted, and costly/profit-driven that it can easily make sick people even sicker.

In the legal area, we have Franz Kafka’s The Trial surreally showing just how opaque, inscrutable, and unfair the “justice” system and its bureaucracy can be. There’s also Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which a court case grinds on for years and years.

Military bureaucracy? You’ll find that in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Those books mercilessly/hilariously satirize that bureaucracy, and readers feel grateful during the occasional moments they stop laughing.

Corporate bureaucracy? Certainly a strong element in such novels as Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In those three books, we see the horrible results when corporate bureaucracy and corporate malfeasance run amok.

There’s also governmental bureaucracy, as in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (of course), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In Piercy’s novel, Connie Ramos unfortunately struggles with the trifecta of welfare, child-custody, and mental health systems. All of which are needed by any humane society, but give Ms. Ramos more grief than help.

Last but not least: It’s not one of the Balzac novels I’ve gotten to, but that author wrote…The Bureaucrats.

What novels have you read that contain strong bureaucratic elements?

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In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which slams an ice-cream place’s sexualized logo, is here.

55 thoughts on “Some Novels Put the Dramatic in the Bureaucratic

  1. Dave, I was absent for sometime as I was distracted with the passing of my beloved Cousin who was like a Mother to me and way up in her age.
    Last surviving person who was in contact with Tagore to be grown enough to remember it all..
    The memorial service was yesterday in Santiniketan to celebrate her beautiful and creative life, with beautiful songs. One dear childhood friend was kind enough to send me one like from each song as I posted them by different artists.
    She was lucky enough being in her own home , with full day and night staff even with a Gardner..
    Now my mind is full of her beautiful memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very sorry about your cousin’s passing, bebe. So difficult, especially given that you were close to her. Glad she lived a very long life, and that yesterday’s memorial service went so well.

      To have been in contact with Tagore — wow!

      The last line of your comment is beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave, new comment thread! I once was on a thread to talk about my horrible experiences with CSRs. I do feel bad about that now and have tried to treat them as real persons who deserve respect, as we all do. I’ve gone to praising those who give me great service, or at least try to. Back in the days that I used to spend much of my time listening to providers (mostly doctors) and members, I tried to understand what they were going through and treat them as I wanted to treated myself. The toughest call I had to take was a physician in our network who refused to get off the phone until I connected him to the President of my company. I really, really tried to satisfy what he wanted, but in the end I was able to transfer him to what was then called the Executive Response Team. I can’t even imagine what it was like to work in that unit!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Kat Lib — the vast majority of customer service representatives are just trying to do their jobs, many are helpful, and all have little or no control over their company’s policies. Most are probably underpaid, too. Some are mean and unfeeling of course, but I’m sure a greater percentage of CEOs than CSRs are that way!

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  3. Away from my books, as I am in Nashville till Saturday, I can only echo the mentions of Gogol’s “The Overcoat”, and add Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”. I keep thinking I remember a scene in a Willa Cather novel involving a character’s frustrated attempts at getting governmental attention and action in Washington DC, but I cannot recall which– and I may be wrong….

    Then there’s the bureaucracy and its many twists and corners of intrigue , mostly military bureaucracy, but law enforcement too, that are depicted in the Jack Reacher series. (I narrowly avoided making an impulse purchase of the latest on offer at the airport, but it was hardback and a nickel shy of $30. I made do with a second hand copy of a Jo Nesbo police thriller I’d brought from home…)

    Come to think of it– shady dealings among bureaucrats and pols and police and thieves in a myriad of combinations form a major theme in the modern crime genre– and even hardboiled stuff from the 1930’s, such as Hammett’s Red Harvest.

    Sorry to hear about your mother’s troubles, and thus, your own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY. And I hope your stay in Nashville is going well. (The state you’re visiting borders Alabama… 🙂 )

      “The Overcoat” and “Bartleby” are definitely great examples of bureaucracy in lit. I’ve read all of Willa Cather’s novels, and I’m not recalling one with a character going to DC, but, then again, I haven’t read that author in years. There may have been some red tape in her first novel, “Alexander’s Bridge,” and maybe some military bureaucracy in “One of Ours.” Plus Jim in “My Antonia” becomes an attorney, so there might be some legal machinery in that Cather novel.

      And, yes, much bureaucracy in the Jack Reacher books — including the ones that show him in the military (the prequels) or have him deal with the military after leaving it. I can’t wait to read Lee Child’s new “The Midnight Line” myself, but I’m waiting for it to show up in my local library (if I don’t get it as a holiday gift…I’ve hinted at that 🙂 ). It got excellent reviews.

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      • Last night I made myself go outdoors around midnight, and despite the glow of neighborhood lights and the city beyond, managed, over about a quarter hour, to see two comets streak across a patch of sky: it’s Geminid season!

        Then i went in to read a bit of my Nesbo novel, “Police’– stayed up till 4:30. My review: compelling.

        Nashville so far has been a good place to stomp around in, but I have put myself in a woozy daze today, and all on account of a book, and possibly the excitement of seeing comets.

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  4. I can’t contribute much to the literary conversation, as I don’t have many books coming to mind that haven’t already been mentioned (except the many military memoirs I’ve read that all mention their hatred of bureaucracy at some point) but I just wanted to say I hope everything gets better with your mother.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! I appreciate that. 🙂

      And, yes, military-related books — whether fiction or nonfiction/memoir — often have plenty of bureaucracy in the foreground or background. Inevitable, I guess. 🙂 😦

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  5. Your mention of Franz Kafka touched on The Trial, but it was his novel The Castle that really explored “the swamp” of bureaucracy. I always kept a copy of the book in my top drawer when I worked in one of the towers of castle that was Minneapolis City Hall.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Almost Iowa, for mentioning “The Castle”! I’ve read several of Kafka’s works, but not that one. Interesting city hall association. 🙂 😦

      “‘The swamp’ of bureaucracy” — that is an EXCELLENT metaphor for the “b” thing.

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  6. Boy, don’t get me started on medical bureaucracy! So sorry you’re having to deal with this.

    I have to add to the Gogol list, with not just Dead Souls deserving attention, but also “The Inspector-General” and “The Overcoat” featuring bureaucracy. And the 20th-century camp literature, like Ginzburg’s “Into the Whirlwind” and Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” show bureaucracy in its literally life-and-death form.

    More recently, I must in fairness to the bureaucrats include Kate Vane’s recent release “The Former Chief Executive,” in which the main character is a British hospital administrator who is forced to retire following a scandal related to her budget cuts. It’s not so much about bureaucracy per se, but it does describe what it’s like being on both sides of the health care machine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena! Yes, when one hears or reads the words “medical bureaucracy,” almost all of us think agitated thoughts. 😦

      I’ve read “The Overcoat,” and it IS a great example of bureaucracy in fiction. As you know, an amazing/haunting/highly influential short story.

      Re the Kate Vane work, it is indeed not easy being on the other side of the health-care machine, either (as Kat Lib and Shallow Reflections also have alluded to elsewhere in this comments section). The whole privatized part of America’s medical system is just an infuriating mess, unless one is rich and gets “Cadillac Care.” (And of course U.S. congresspeople enjoy their lavish government-funded medical benefits even as the Republican ones try to slash the medical benefits of millions of other people.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A really interesting topic although I’m sorry it’s been prompted by a difficult personal experience. Personally as soon as you introduced the topic I thought of Little Dorrit. I think the Circumlocution Office is one of the great satirical inventions of Dickens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, whatcathyreadnext, for the kind words and the mention of “Little Dorrit”! I agree about the Circumlocution Office being one of Dickens’ great satirical inventions — which is saying something! 🙂 “Little Dorrit” isn’t as “famous” as a number of other Dickens novels, but, as you know, it’s REALLY good.

      Liked by 1 person

          • It’s unusual because it’s in two three hour parts – the first from the viewpoint of Arthur Clennam and the second from the viewpoint of Little Dorrit. So quite an investment of time. But great cast, including Alec Guinness as William Dorrit and Joan Greenwood as Mrs Clennam.

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              • I haven’t read “Little Dorrit,” nor seen the film mentioned above. There is however a wonderful TV miniseries from 2008, produced by the BBC (of course!). It stars Claire Foy, Matthew Macfadyen and Tom Courtenay and was very well done. I kept thinking about my mother, whose financial affairs I handled after my father died. The minute she received any bill, she would call me to tell me to come out and take care of it, even if it wasn’t due for three weeks. I used to joke with my siblings that Mom must have thought she’d be put in debtor’s prison if she was even a day late. Perhaps she saw the film of “Little Dorrit,” referenced above by whatcathyreadnext! 🙂

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                • You’re right, Kat Lib — the BBC almost always does a GREAT job adapting British literary classics.

                  Ha! Yes, some people are very punctual about paying bills. Probably a good thing given how quick some corporations are to pounce even when a bill is paid a tiny bit late — as in the instances where car-insurance companies cut off coverage if a person is even a day late.

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  8. My heart goes out to you as you deal with the medical system/bureaucracy. I have worked in this field for 38 years and there are days (every day I work) when I cannot believe how we’ve evolved into such a mess. You’ve shown me through this post that I could probably write a novel about it, and with all the people who have dealt first hand with the insanity, there would be a market for it. I’ve read some of the books listed in your post and anything ‘ridiculously funny’ sounds like a winner to me!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Shallow Reflections! You have indeed been on the inside of all this, and I imagine it is VERY hard for nurses and others in the medical field to deal with bureaucracy, too. You COULD write a great novel about it!

      I know not everyone would agree with me, but I think single payer/national health insurance would be less bureaucratic. That’s what the people I know in Canada and other countries say.

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  9. Dave, first off, best wishes for your mother and to you for navigating the healthcare system. You’ve mentioned several novels that I really loved, “Catch-22,” “Bleak House,” and especially, “So Much for That,” as having read it more recently than the other two. I also read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s fictional “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” mentioned by J.J. as well as “Cancer Ward.” I’m still trying to think of other novels I’ve read that are suitable for this topic, but as they are percolating in my brain, I wanted to add a personal note.

    I worked for a very large healthcare company, which shall remain nameless, for almost 20 years before going out on disability in 2010. So, I’ve seen the bureaucracy “From Both Sides Now,” each having its own pitfalls and problems. When working for the HC company I was an admin to a long list of medical directors and nurse managers. None of them were as heartless as they have been portrayed in books and movies, if I may say so. However, the very worst was the year my company merged with another one, giving rise to turf wars and very unhappy doctors, as well as members. About all I did was take calls from these folks and everyone yelled at me. I hated it and nearly quit, but I persevered thinking it would get better, which it eventually did. My lowest point was when I took a call from a member who was trying to get a piece of equipment (DME) for his wife and was quite rude to me on the phone. I forwarded his request to a manager, which was then kicked up to a medical director, someone else, then making its way up to the chief medical director and back down to the manager and then back down to wind up back on my desk with no resolution. I could have cried, and I wanted to just approve the darn request, but I wasn’t authorized to do so. My next installment would be me as patient! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the best wishes, Kat Lib! And for mentioning the novels you mentioned!

      Sorry you’ve had to deal with medical bureaucracy as both a patient and as someone who worked in that field. Sounds like you experienced some horrendous situations as well as some more heartening ones.

      I definitely get that most bureaucrats are good people, basically almost forced to act in certain ways. I’ve been in (non-medical) jobs where I’ve had to do things I never would have wanted to do — though I fought it as much as I could (one reason I was laid off from my last full-time job).

      One of the reasons bureaucracy exists, I’m sure, is that it can be more profitable. For instance, some patients get so stressed and frustrated trying to get themselves or their doctors legitimately reimbursed that they give up.

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      • Dave, I went through years of hell because of things done to me or in spite of me. I still recall my infectious disease doctor walking into my room and announcing that I had a garden-variety staph infection as though that there was something to be grateful for. Then when he asked me who I worked for, he said “Oh, the Evil Empire!” though that was a little bit disconcerting to say the least, but he turned out to be a wonderful doc! Another thing is to always stand up for yourself or your loved ones. On one of my many hospital stays, I had a hospitalist (which we no longer have our doctors who know us best do rounds much anymore) made a very condescending comment about the “redness” of my skin around another staph infection on my elbow wasn’t that red and other things she said, I asked to see a nurse supervisor, and I said, do not let this woman back in this room again, which she made happen. It’s a tricky thing to be strong enough to say those things and not worrying that the provider will somehow take it out on you (there I go again, being my cynical self!)

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        • Thank you very much for sharing all that, Kat Lib. You have had more firsthand experiences with the medical system than anybody would want. Sorry about all the lows along with the occasional positive things.

          You’re absolutely right that one has to stand up for one’s self and one’s loved ones in those situations, even though it feels risky. That’s something I’m not good at in medical settings; I wish I was better.

          I hope your health is okay at the moment.

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          • Thanks, Dave, my health is OK for now and better than it’s been in a few years (yah!), but I don’t want to jinx myself! 🙂 I’m going to be looking into 1) joining a riding stable (and awaiting an app in the mail); and 2) seeing if I can get a service dog. These may both be pie-in-the sky things, but I continue to look for things to help myself live a better life (not that mine is so terrible right now).

            One good thing is that I finally started and finished a book for the first time in a long time. It’s one I actually reread for the 3rd time, which seemed like a major accomplishment. I think someone on this blog mentioned this series a long time ago, I can’t remember who, but the first one in the series is, “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.” by Dorothy Gilman. Mrs. Pollifax is a widowed woman with two kids who don’t live anywhere close by, but she feels that there’s something missing in her life, so she goes to Langley and says that she wants to be a spy. Due to a mix-up she is sent on a mission and proves her mettle as someone who turns out to be quite resourceful. She then has a whole series of books about her, all of which helped me through a major medical and psychological crisis back in the 90’s, along with a series of books about Rabbi Small (written by Harry Kemelman). I somehow must remember certain books with my physical (or perhaps mental) health; does anyone else find this to be true?

            Liked by 1 person

            • Glad your health is okay at this time, Kat Lib! And good luck with the possibilities of a riding stable and a service dog!

              I’ve never read “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax” and its sequels, but I love the plot line you skillfully summarized!

              I definitely associate certain novels with specific things I’ve went through, whether medical or otherwise. I also associate certain novels with different places, if I happened to read them on vacation.

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              • So I went to my downstairs library last night and found all 13 (?) of the Mrs. Pollifax series and spent about one-half hour trying to organize them in the proper order to read them by (using post-it notes). I suppose that Mrs. Pollifax is very much the same as Miss Marple, only in the spy-world. I do remember how much I enjoyed these books, as well as Miss Marple, because as both women were older, but still as smart or industrious as any man (or maybe more), they were women to be admired. That will be their legacy to me.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Lucky 13!

                  Great point about the appeal of admirable older women protagonists in novels — especially in our sexist/ageist culture. A few others that come to mind are Professor Minerva McGonigle in the “Harry Potter” books, Iris Chase Griffen in Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin,” Ma Joad of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Ursula Iguran of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” etc.!

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      • Dave, I’m sticking this comment here, because the thread was going to get too long, but I wanted to say that yes, the bureaucracy can get to unwieldy to work as it should, but I never saw anyone that I worked with deliberately trying to make it more profitable at the expense of the patient (though I’m sure the big-wigs at the company felt differently). One of the many meetings I was responsible for attending and writing minutes for, was a weekly case management meeting with all of the medical directors in my region. They would each bring a case that was particularly difficult to adjudicate, was discussed and a resolution made by the entire group.
        Another personal note was that I went to a psychiatrist yesterday for a med check as proposed by my therapist. I remember thinking on the way home that this was another example of bureaucracy run amok. The shrink (can I still call him that?) was much more intent on filling out a form than listening to me, and he kept interrupting me with every answer I tried to give him, to go on to the next question on his form. What a disappointment, though I knew from a previous visit to another shrink that all they care about now is completing a form rather than really listen to a patient.

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        • I totally agree, Kat Lib — it’s the CEO types who are profit-obsessed, rarely the employees. That’s what I meant when I referred to “higher bureaucrats”; I could have been much clearer. 🙂

          Good to hear that there were meetings (experienced firsthand by you) in which attendees seriously discussed cases. One sometimes thinks that healthcare companies are all about cavalierly denying medical claims in order to increase profits (though there’s plenty of that, too, I’m sure).

          Very sorry about your experience yesterday. A shame that forms/paperwork can take such precedence over the much more important task of really listening to a patient.

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          • Yes, Dave, I’ve decided that if I believed in Karma, or even an afterlife, which I don’t, I can see myself being sentenced to a life living as a customer service representative forever. If ever I flip out on anybody over the phone, it’s a CSR, and I always feel bad after I do that, it’s my first instinct to hold them as responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened to me, which is totally unfair, yet I can’t seem to help myself. Most of them have treated me fairly, so I dislike it when I don’t treat them as I’d like to be treated myself!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Well said, Kat Lib!

              Yes, it has to be hellish to be customer service representatives forced to do their companies’ often-awful bidding and getting the brunt of complaints over stuff they didn’t create and in fact might secretly be against. Most of them are probably recorded so they don’t step out of line.

              Of course, those companies set things up so that it’s very difficult to complain to a higher-up if one wants to spare the customer-service rep.

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              • Right, Dave, but I’ve learned throughout the years that if one can’t be satisfied by a CSR, one always asks for a supervisor, or at worst, ask for the name of the president or CEO. That usually gives you more attention!

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                • Certainly worth a try, Kat Lib, and sometimes that works! But I haven’t always had success with supervisors. Sometimes they’re no more helpful than the CSR. Sometimes they can’t be reached immediately, and, when I’m told they’ll call back, they don’t always do. Oh well — at least Roy Moore didn’t win in Alabama! 🙂

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          • I know I’m all over the place and I keep posting events from my own personal life — sorry! — but I’ve been going through a rash of things that somehow fit in with this week’s topic. I had a test done a few weeks ago that showed that I have osteoporosis at least in one area, but it wasn’t to me a big deal, as I’ve gone through this before. My new doc sent me to a rheumatologist and I dutifully went; she mentioned two drugs I could take, and I said I’d think about it. Before I knew it, I was getting calls from a specialty pharmacy about one of them and asked her for the cost. I had another reason to go onto my mail order pharmacy account and found a prescription which said the cost for a 3 month supply was just a little less than $1,450.00. Well, I nearly had a heart attack right then and there. So, I’m in the process of notifying everyone that I won’t pay for this drug — it’s not like it’s for something more serious than my bones, and I’ve already had three fractures — which can be serious but not life-threatening in someone of my age and health.

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            • Kat Lib, that prescription price you were quoted was indeed shocking. Another example of price-gouging by the pharmaceutical companies. Disgusting. In many ways, the U.S. is the least humane country in the developed world. So much of it is about exploitation and excessive/obscene profits.

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  10. Howdy, Dave!

    — What novels have you read that contain strong bureaucratic elements? —

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s fictional “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” — and nonfictional “The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” — both have a great deal to say about the superglue that greases the wheels of human society. (And I believe the author’s “Cancer Ward” and “The First Circle” do likewise, but I have not read either of them.)

    Of course, you already mentioned my favorite novel in this area: Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” If there were no bureaucracy, then there would be no “Catch-22,” so one could argue all the red tape is actually worth it. Not you. Not me. But someone, in some other place, at some other time.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    P.S.: Best wishes to your Mom!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, J.J.!

      When you wrote that bureaucracy is “the superglue that greases the wheels of human society,” it reminded me that I should have acknowledged in my post that a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary. But there almost always seems to be too much of it! I guess it creates jobs, and gives some bureaucrats a feeling of power as they make life difficult for others. Plus lower bureaucrats are basically forced to be too bureaucratic by higher bureaucrats. Actually, I think I’ll revise my post a bit after posting this comment. 🙂

      Great mentions of those Solzhenitsyn works and “Catch-22” — and I loved your seriocomic riff in the Heller paragraph!

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      • — I should have acknowledged in my post that a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary. . . . I think I’ll revise my post a bit after posting this comment. —

        Have you learned nothing from the misadventures of the “Make America Grate Again” Prevaricator-in-Chief? Never, ever let the facts get in the way of a good story. Or a bad one. [Insert Appropriate Emoji Here]

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  11. I think I may have mentioned “Come With Me to Macedonia” several years ago, Dave. It was written by Leonard Drohan and it describes an environment much like Redstone Arsenal during the late fifties where a bunch of civilians worked on a military base along with members of the military. That is still the case today. The novel is ridiculously funny in describing the shenanigans of the main character as he tries to cope at the office with all of the bureaucracy in place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary! “Ridiculously funny” sounds really good to me. Bureaucracy can be a terrific target for humor, and it sounds like Leonard Drohan does a great job with that approach. I just put the book on my to-read list. 🙂

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