By James P. Othmer,
who is a former advertising executive and the author of the novel "The Futurist"
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
THEN WE CAME TO THE END
By Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown. 387 pp. $23.99
Several pages into Joshua Ferris's very funny and impressively observed first novel, "Then We Came to the End," we start comparing it with other memorable novels about the world of advertising. But after a few chapters we broaden the parameters and consider it in terms of the corporate novel, the office novel, the cube farm novel. By now, we've met most of the characters -- an eccentric, paranoid, hypercritical group at a failing Chicago ad agency -- and we realize that not only do we want to know more about them, but we've also begun to feel as if we are one of them, congregating in the hall to discuss yet another round of layoffs, the latest confounding assignment or the disturbing behavior of a co-worker. Which is why we conclude that categorizing "Then We Came to the End" as anything other than an original and inspired work of fiction would be doing it a great disservice.
For starters, there's Ferris's clever use of the first-person-plural voice of "We" (which we've decided to co-opt for this review). As the novel commences in the late 1990s, we're introduced to the workplace by way of a collective recollection of headier times:
"We were fractious and overpaid. . . It was the era of take-ones and tchotchkes. The world was flush with Internet cash and we got our fair share of it. It was our position that logo design was every bit as important as product performance and distribution systems. 'Wicked cool' were the words we used to describe our logo designs. 'Bush league' were the words we used to describe the logo designs of other agencies -- unless it was a really well-designed logo, in which case we bowed down before it, much like the ancient Mayans did their pagan gods. We, too, thought it would never end."
While the We voice contributes to the book's strangely compelling vibe, it also presents challenges. Occasionally, the narrative suffers from too many anecdotes that begin along the lines of, We heard such and such from so and so who heard it from . . . And in the first sections, the collective We represents such a large, diverse group that it's difficult to feel emotionally vested. But this is only because Ferris does not cheat, and his discipline pays off nicely in the end.
The primary characters are revealed as broad types, as if described by a slightly snarky co-worker on our first day at the office. That's Tom Mota, an Emerson-quoting, increasingly unhinged divorcé who wears three company polo shirts, every day. By the copy machine is Chris Yop, who's still coming to work even though he was fired days ago. And the guy around whom the others are gathered, that's Benny Shassburger, recounting the latest maudlin rumors. In better times, Benny would talk loudly and without fear of recrimination. But now, "We would listen with only one ear, and with one eye always over our shoulders, in case we needed to bolt back to our desks and commence the charade that our workload was as strong as ever, because only then would we not be laid off."
And laid off they will be. As the economy spirals into a full-blown downturn, an increasing number of employees are forced to "walk Spanish" (a euphemism for being fired, inspired by Spanish Main pirates walking toward execution). Of course, this is when the book becomes most interesting. What began as a workplace farce starts transforming the cumulative pathos of everyday tics into something more meaningful. With the layoffs and the threat of more to come, we are suddenly walking the halls of an office consumed by fear, insecurity and a compulsive fixation on the quotidian extracurricular details of its co-workers.
At times the characters suffer from an excess of eccentricities and tragedies large and small. But Ferris skillfully balances the comic with the authentic, the insightful with the absurd, and we can't help but be transfixed by their stories. Now, when Benny opens a window onto the soul of a co-worker, we have to know more. "We did not like not knowing something. We could not abide being left in the dark." Everyone wonders if Lynn does have cancer, or if Joe is gay, or if Carl stole Janine's meds, but no one ever bothers to ask the person in question.
At first, this may read as another of Ferris's many brilliant workplace observations. But it unearths a deeper truth about the human condition that is revealed in the novel's satisfying denouement: The people with whom we spend the most time are those we know the least. And yet, somehow, they're the ones we know better than anyone else.