Thursday, January 27, 2011

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

This novel got a lot of good press and won some awards, including the 2007 PEN/Hemingway Award. It’s the story of a group of people who work together in a Chicago advertising agency. The agency is in decline; one by one the copywriters and graphic designers are being laid off as the clients disappear and the work dries up. Meanwhile, the remaining staff gather in one another’s offices to commiserate, gossip, drink coffee, and in some cases plan their escapes. A great deal of the book consists of these glib conversations that take place in one cubicle or another. Like at a real job, sometimes these conversations are clever but a lot of the time they are trite, and Ferris doesn’t really favor one sort over the other. Hence we endure endless discussions about Marcia’s new hair style, and whether or not Larry is going to leave his wife for Amber.

Reviewers rave about how Ferris captures the ennui and the cynicism that characterize modern office life, and he does. But if you already work in an office where ennui and cynicism are the norm, do you really want to read about it for fun, too? It’s not like their ennui and cynicism are any different from anyone else’s, which is what the critics seemed to like, but which I thought made for dull reading. Occasionally Ferris introduces some level of pathos or action that moves the story to another level, like when Janine feels compelled to mourn her murdered daughter by spending her lunch hour in the plastic ball pit at McDonalds, or when Tom decides to take his tragicomic revenge for being laid off. But these moments are too infrequent to counteract the endless boring debates about who should get the chair of the most recently departed employee. Yes, I realize that the pointlessness is the point. But does all this really add up to one of the best books of 2007?

(Book 2, 2011)



I can't imagine reading about this kind of situation and chat. Having been downsized I find the topic too painful to read as entertainment. Also, my office could be typical in some ways but generally had so much intelligent conversation that that's what everyone missed when they left.

Marie-Therese said...

What did you think about the second person plural voice? Too gimmicky? I was moved by the way the comic and the tragic got all mixed up together (like it does in real life).

I feel Ferris recognized that working at an ad agency is not what humans were created to do.

Becky Holmes said...

Marie-Therese, I was initially put off by the voice but was surprised at how quickly I got used to it. He does a better job with it than I thought possible.

A good observation about ad agencies as unnatural environments for people. And advertising in general.

PattisPages said...

I really enjoyed this book, especially since some aspects of it hit pretty close to home. I found that all of my teacher friends, however, couldn't relate and didn't like it at all.

Shelley said...

Sounds like it would be better just to watch Ricky Gervais.

L.A. said...

I read this once when it first came out, and found it hysterically funny. Then I was in a phase of my life where I felt disenchanted with my job. I read it again three years later for my book group, and this time I found it terribly sad. Men leading quiet lives of desperation and all that. And I actually like my job now. So go figure. The "we" voice might be a bit gimmicky, but I felt Ferris pulled it off.

Citizen Reader said...

I'm really picky in my literary fiction choices (I start about 10-20 novels for every one I finish), and I remember really enjoying this one. I know exactly what you mean about "who would want to read this if they're living it?" but somehow, I found the pointlessness quite amusing, in the way that the British tv show The Office was amusing. "Funny sad," I call it.

Of course, I am perpetually disenchanted with all my jobs, so that probably colors my experience.

I also didn't mind the second person; thought it was weird at first but then actually kind of refreshing. Whether or not this deserved all the critical kudos, I don't know...but that's the way it always seems to go with literary fiction. Once you hit a tipping point of a few critics liking it, they ALL like it.

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