Terms & Conditions: A Novel

  • Robert Glancy
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 272 pages

A hilarious take on what happens when an expert in drafting the fine print loses his memory

Don’t skip the fine print. That’s good advice in general and especially good advice for reading Robert Glancy’s debut novel Terms & Conditions. Glancy had me chuckling from the first page, where his protagonist, corporate lawyer Frank Shaw, says about his work “What anti-matter is to matter, I am to trust…” Here is a writer who can make even the staid business of insurance law seem funny.

There is some seriously small print in this novel, so small it requires a magnifier for older eyes. The summary on the book’s back cover pointing out the footnoting device made me wary. Was this just a gimmick, a device to differentiate a first novel from the pack? It’s tempting here to play a riff on Glancy and add a footnote of my own, but I’ll resist. I’ll just say that the device is used effectively and suits the story line.

Frank is an expert in the fine print of insurance contracts. At least he was until a car crash leaves him with amnesia. His wife Alice and his older brother Oscar reassure him that before the accident he was a happy husband and successful partner in the firm founded by his father. Frank isn’t so sure, and as his memory slowly returns, a very different picture of his life emerges. Depending on your point of view, Frank either loses his mind or regains his senses as he comes to grips with his life.

Frank presents the terms and conditions of his relationships to his family and the world, complete with footnotes that, just like those in the contracts he wrote, often belie what is in the text. The fun is literally in the footnotes. They are ironic, insightful, and laugh-out-loud funny. “The world is suffocating in its own satire,” Frank writes in a footnote to his suspicion that Oscar has become the head of London’s Legal Board of Ethics through a bribe. In another, Frank express his incredulousness after he and his wife spend two weeks trying out paint samples of various shades of white only to find this on the label of their final choice: “Production batches may differ from the colour in the test pot [sic].”

Post-amnesia Frank discovers that, just like the absurd paint coloring warning, all the lawyerly caution he builds into contracts is anathema to what he truly values. “A great lawyer does not abide by the Rumsfeld rule of unknowable unknowns. He insures clients against all unknowable unknowns.” He does this in the fine print of the contract’s footnotes. The more important the condition, the smaller — and thus less legible — the print.

It’s not just lawyers who are targets for Glancy’s biting humor but more generally the 1980s corporate culture represented by his ambitious wife, who is a human relations executive. Glancy takes aim at the Myers Briggs-ed, thinking-outside-the-box, role-playing, not-reinventing-the-wheel mentality that dominated business school curricula and corporate cultures during those years. His diatribe is a rallying cry for cube dwellers everywhere to rebel against the drudgery and dubious principles of corporate life and reclaim their souls.

I’m guessing Glancy probably learned something of the corporate dissembling he so comically portrays from his real-life work in public relations. He’s given us an update on conformity and unbridled ambition in the business world that was depicted by Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel-turned-icon The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and more recently in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities about the “Masters of the Universe” who ruled Wall Street in the eighties.

Some of my favorite parts of Terms & Conditions are the emails from Frank’s younger brother Malcolm, who is living an itinerant bohemian life in Southeast Asia. In a childhood feat of daring, Malcolm once bested the bullying Oscar and has remained the family’s free spirit and a beacon for Frank as he recovers from his accident. Even Malcolm’s four-letter (expletive deleted for this review) email address is a statement of defiance, an address that Hotmail’s terms and conditions would not allow.

The most affirming part of Frank’s story is this idea from the law firm’s actuary: We have half a million chances to change our lives. If we live to be about 80, we’ll have almost 30,000 days, or more than half a million hours — each hour giving us a new opportunity for change. Now that’s something we should all come to terms with. 

Check out this YouTube video of the author talking about his book.

C. B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax, Virginia.

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