- Then We Came to the End
- Little, Brown and Company, 400 pp.
The Office Life
Joshua Ferris is to be applauded for having written the kind of book that will make people look at you on public transport as if you’d dribbled coffee down your nicely pressed shirt. For Then We Came to the End is that rare thing: a novel that makes you laugh out loud. Ferris’ remarkable debut deals with the experience of a struggling Chicago advertising agency at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Its staff spend their time huddled around each other’s workstations, gossiping, plotting and swapping stories, wondering who will be next to be laid off – or ‘Walk Spanish down the hall,’ as they call it, after the Tom Waits song.
Ferris’s office is peopled with archetypes: the funny one, the friendly one, the annoying one, the weird one. It is to his credit to have made them come alive beyond their reductive classification. There is Karen Woo, who’s always got something new to say; Lynn Mason, the boss, who may or may not be dying of cancer; Janine Gorjanc, suffering terribly from the loss of her child; Tom Mota, angry and vengeful even before he gets the boot; and Chris Yop, obsessed with his ergonomic chair. But at the heart of the novel, the character with whom we most identity, the everyman, the nice guy, is Benny Shassburger. Benny, with his ‘corkscrew curls’ and ‘quick laugh’, is the fulcrum around which office life revolves. He is without malice, tells the best stories, and makes the working day seem something other than humdrum drudgery. He also has a sort of innocence; he’s the kind of person who enjoys the aspects of work which are most reminiscent of school: the routine, the rhythm, the familiar faces.
Then We Came to the End is an incredibly entertaining novel. The childishness, the pettiness, the jealously, the nitpicking, the backstabbing, the politicking, of all this is delicious, authentic, accurate and brilliantly realised. Ferris’s office is one of pranks and games; sushi rolls find their way behind people’s bookshelves, things go missing from desks, and chairs are mysteriously swapped. There are the customary shifts and swings of popularity and power; endless arguments about who deserves to go, and who deserves to stay; and regular colloquies about some of the more unusual behaviour of the staff. But Ferris’s novel is as much about the way we act when thrown together with strangers, as it is office life. How do we define ourselves when we have come to be defined by others in a way we find unacceptable? The novel is concerned with the cliques and rivalries, the unrequited loves and petty hatreds we find in any situation where human beings are grouped together. The office setting, the claustrophobic, pressurised environment of plastic and stale air, simply allows for the intensification of the existential dimension. Everyone in Ferris’ novel, perhaps with the exception of Benny, is asking themselves the same question on a more or less permanent basis: “What am I doing here?” Like Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sublime comedy The Office, Then We Came to the End is sharp on the absurdities and tedium of the corporate world, but is much more about the human experience. How should we fill our time? What is behind the choices we make? What are we really driven by? What do we actually want?
From the wonderful opening line, ‘we were factitious and overpaid,’ we are in a world of first-person plural narration, which, with the exception of one chapter, is maintained throughout the book. This feels entirely natural rather than daringly bold and experimental. It is, after all, a writer’s job to marry style with content and it is apt that Ferris has chosen to tell his tale in a collective voice. For the office of a big company is the modern collective. The use of the first-person plural then is not a stylistic affection or literary pretence, it is an obligation. Within the ‘we’, there are many ‘I’s’, and between the two there is the sort of tension and mistrust and secrecy which makes for fertile ground for fiction. This is a place of endless competing factions; of colleagues vying for promotions; of employees wary of management, of management unsure of its workforce; a place based on self-promotion and self-advancement where, paradoxically, little can be achieved without cooperative effort.
From the very beginning I was with this novel. I found its combination of distant, laconic wit, spiritual boredom, and playground camaraderie irresistible. It is inspired and inspiring. Its treatment of the contemporary Western dilemma – of what to do in a culture which has subordinated almost everything to the making of money – is sensitive, wise and witty. Like Don DeLillo’s Americana, from whose opening line Ferris took his title, Then We Came to the End examines the dangerous blankness of the corporate experience, the retreat into insane banality that boredom inspires. There is something of Kafka here, a certain bleakness to the humour that is never far from the surface; and there is also something of Douglas Coupland, another impressionistic writer with a gift for the capture of snapshot moments. But this is new territory for the novel, a fresh, original and vital piece of work. When I came to the end of it, my sadness at having finished was lessened by one of the finest closing sentences of recent fiction.