Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End is one of those novels that slowly grew on me. I enjoyed it right from the beginning, but it wasn't until I turned over the last page that I was struck by just how good this first novel really is. The story begins as the economic boom of the 1990s is beginning to head south. The writers and designers in a rapidly failing Chicago ad agency are just waking up to the reality of a world marked first by austerity measures (no flowers in the lobby), and then layoffs and firings, which are known in the agency's parlance as "Walking Spanish down the hall," a reference to pirates' treatment of their prisoners (and a Tom Waits song). Told in the first person plural (the "we" voice is my favorite narrative style when it's done well, as it is here), Ferris' novel is about work and identity — the extent to which we define ourselves by how we make a living — and how people behave (often badly)in the face of change, particularly change for the worse.
There are the rumors flying, the infighting, the paranoia, and the incessant gossip around the water cooler about who's in and who's out, who's doing what to whom, who's going crazy, who's brought a gun to work, who's still showing up at the office (even though he was fired weeks ago), whose marriage won't make it through the downturn, not to mention the endless pettiness. One unforgettable series of scenes involves the machinations the characters go through in order to capture a particularly coveted chair that belonged to one of the first people fired. But Ferris goes beyond the work, exploring how people cope with change. In one very moving section (for which he switches to the third person), he writes with compassion about the ramifications of one character's bout with breast cancer, leavening the inherent oppressiveness of the situation with humor. Reading Then We Came to the End made me feel good about the state of contemporary fiction.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Oh, the weekend... It was oppressively hot. So much so that I actually dreaded the additional day we had off. At least at the office, I have AC. But I did manage to get some reading in...
Of the many books I picked up from the library last week, I started with the ones that were due first. So I gave Then We Came To An End a go. Here's what the NPR's recommendation said about the book:
I think I related a little too well to this book. Though it takes place in the creative department of an advertising corporation, a lot of the quirks of office life were quite familiar to my none too creative corporate past. The annoying co-workers, the whiney cubicle-mates, the seemingly larger-than-life boss, the office gossip, etc. It seems that no matter what kind of work you do (benefits consulting, international education, commercial real estate or corporate advertising) these elements exist everywhere. You just can't escape it.
And I think that what I could relate to is also what got to me. At times the book felt like such a downer that my already low-enthusiasm to show up at the office took a deeper dive south. Worse yet, I'd brought it all home with me when home is where I try to escape all of this nonsense. (Tougher yet when your spouse works for the same company.) In small moments to myself, without half realizing it, I'd get bummed out thinking about the cynicism that can make work feel like such a burden. But that's my own personal hang up man, and I can't let Joshua Ferris take credit (or blame) for that.
And I couldn't really get into the dark humor as the writer dealt with the subjects of cancer, death, abortion and workplace violence. Yeah. I know. I'm such a party pooper. However, every time I was ready to dismiss this book as being too dark or too painful a reminder of my professional obligations there would be a story or a chapter that redeemed it all. I think that it's this kind of skillful use of hope (and not in a cheesy or preachy way) that the reader discovers among the gloomy stories of gossip slung at the water cooler is what ultimately made this book enjoyable for me.