Sunday, July 01, 2007

Book review: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is a clever and insightful novel written from the point of view of a group of junior executives in a Chicago advertising agency. Although each individual is named and described, the narrator is anonymous and uses the pronoun "we." From this unusual perspective, the book recounts the down-hill rollercoaster of the late 1990's Internet boom, and it's quite a ride.

Coffee and gossip fuel this team of copyrighters and art directors as they jockey for position and try to move up. They watch each other: who has a new haircut, who is fighting with their spouse, who has a crush on whom, who is having an affair. They also talk endlessly and mercilessly about their superiors: Joe Pope, the aloof and inscrutable chief copyrighter, is subject to savage pranks; Lynn Mason, the agency partner in charge, is universally feared and admired.

The main action in Then We Came to the End takes place a year after layoffs begin, but the story ranges back and forth in time, as we, the readers, are treated to anecdotes about the team, past and present. Old Brizz was the first to "walk Spanish" (get laid off) and took his fate with great aplomb. But when when Tom Mota, office prankster and wild man, and then Chris Yop, office hippy, do the walk, the core of group begins to be stripped away.

Then We Came to the End is a fine first novel. The office politics and highjinks are fun, but it's the details that make this book. Joshua Ferris captures office life like a documentary film. He also gets what it's like to really be a part of a group that has a life of its own.

Each member has a role: Benny is the ranconteur, who tells stories about everyone else; Marcia is the mean one; Karen is the superior one; Jim is the dunce who is always the last to know. Together they make up the "we" that gossips and moans and loves the job and wishes they were elsewhere all at once. Reading this book is like spending an extended period in Benny's office, listening as he recounts the latest office antics.

The disembodied "we" tells a good story and makes some very astute observations, but its impersonal nature makes the narrative feel superficial. We readers get the details but don't feel the heart. One chapter written from Lynn Mason's point of view is the exception: it pulses with life. The dragon lady appears in living color.

I also had trouble keeping track of the time being recounted, as the narrator recalls incidents of the past and blends them with the present. It's clear when the action comes to a head that everything is happening within a week or so, but when exactly particular incidents happen was hard to place.

Then We Came to the End is satisfying in that it captures that peculiar human configuration of the work group. It's disastifying in that the configuration itself is a little cold (but perhaps that's the point). It can be deadly accurate and very funny, however, and Joshua Ferris has given us ample opportunity to take a step back and examine that place where many of us spend a lot of our lives — the office.

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.

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