Joshua Ferris has written the book that everyone who has ever worked in an office swore that they were going to write someday.
(Or, rather, the one that they were writing when they should have been working, or the one they were surreptiously taking notes for during mind-numbing meetings.)
Then We Came to the End is about a group of dysfunctional coworkers barely hanging on to their jobs and sanity as they manage to survive life in an Chicago advertising agency that is experiencing a “downturn” in business, thanks to the dot com bust. For most of the book, the ad execs have one project, a pro bono campaign for a nonexistent cancer organization, which leaves them lots of time to do … well, not much of anything.
“While waiting for Lynn to arrive, we killed time listening to Chris Yop tell us the story of Tom Mota’s chair. We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so. We wandered hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy. We refilled our coffee mugs on floors we didn’t belong on. Hank Neary was an avid reader. He arrived early in his brown corduroy coat with a book taken from the library, copied all its pages on the Xerox machine, and sat at his desk reading what looked to passersby like the honest pages of business.” (pg. 28)
Ferris gives his reader quite the cast of characters in this book, his debut novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award. With the sheer number of them, it initially seems impossible to keep them all straight but that becomes easy to do because we have all worked with someone like Genevieve or Marcia or Tom or Carl or Jim or Joe. We all know someone like the draconian office coordinator who keeps track of the serial numbers on office furniture in order to make damn sure that coveted chairs and bookshelves stay where they belong, even if their former inhabitants are now collecting unemployment. We’ve all had a boss like Lynn Mason.
It’s Lynn’s story that the coworkers are fixated on. She may or she may have cancer. Someone said that she did, but then … maybe she didn’t. Just as you, the reader, finish catching your breath from laughing so hard at the antics of the cubicle denizens, you quickly sober up when Then We Came to the End switches its tone and the story shifts focus. You see the office crew in a whole new (flourescent) light.
And then a funny thing happens, just as it does to the characters themselves. You begin to care about them, and you spend the last third of the novel forgetting to breathe because you’ve spent the last 200 some-odd pages caring about them.
This is, quite simply, an absolutely brilliant novel. As mentioned, Joshua Ferris has a razor-sharp ability to create memorable, 3-D characters, people so realistic that you could swear you know them. They’re a composite of people, but the genius of Ferris is that you can see these madcap events and these crazy people in any typical workplace. Maybe even in the next cubicle. He also nails the narration (written in the first person plural “we”) and the dialogue. It is quick, fast-paced, authentic. Real.
I read nearly 250 pages of this in one sitting. That is a rarity for me. The pace just moves along so rapidly that you really do lose track of time – kind of like when you’re engrossed in that funny story that the guy down the hall is telling you and you ignore the work waiting on your desk.
Then We Came to the End reminded me a bit of The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, which I also loved (see my review here). (I’d imagine Jess and Joshua would get along pretty well in real life.) Both novels are witty and well-written, and commentaries on how our professional lives end up defining so much of our existence. Both authors, I’d imagine, might have been pretty cool to know in the workplace and would be fun to have a beer with.
In the case of Then We Came to the End, the message becomes one of whether we really know the people we spend 40 hours a week with … and what happens when we finally do.
What Other Bloggers Thought:
Did I miss your review? Let me know in the comments.
copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.