We cubicle-dwelling corporate types spend about half of our waking time, give or take, at work. While there, we are a somewhat unique type of creature. We work on our little projects, maintain polite acquaintances, try our subtle and not-so-subtle manouvers to get ahead. We have our little meetings, we get disproportionately upset at perceived slights, we gossip. Life goes on.
There are some things we do well. Writing good fiction about our lives at work is not one of them. So it is with considerable surprise that we see one of us, Joshua Ferris, stepping out and writing Then We Came to the End. The surprise isn't that one of us can write. With all the presentations and memos we are writing, there is bound to be someone who would get good at the written word. Monkeys at keyboards typing Shakespeare and all that stuff. The real surprise is that we find the book on the shortlist for numerous book award lists ... Who knew?
You might not have thought about this, but when we are back in office, everyone seems to be talking in the collective pronoun. It is always 'we have to get this done', 'we can get through these tough times', 'we are going to have a re-organization', 'we are screwed'. So when Joshua Ferris writes Then We Came to the End, his narrator tells the story in that same first person collective that we know and love. Which might not seem like a big deal, till we try to write a blog post on the book with the same technique. That's when we shake our heads and go 'So he wrote a whole book like this? Holy sh... '
There are other ways in which the book holds a mirror to our life in the cubicle. Have you ever noticed how we know each other at work by our full names? Even when we call each other by first names, we are think of each other in terms of full names. Is it the Outlook effect? Looking at each others' names (surname first) in our email in-boxes every day ... it is difficult to shake off the last names. So the book doesn't try. Every character is named in their full glory. It is always Tom Mota, Joe Pope, Karen Woo, Lynn Mason. And you know what, it doesn't take any getting used to. From the first page, we are so immersed in the world of work, we are almost our office-selves when we are reading, and this seems like the most natural thing to do.
The first half of the Then We Came to the End is like an extended episode of The Office, only deeper, and without the creepy boss. We are at an advertising agency in its ra-ra days. The book begins when those days end, the dot com boom bites the dust, advertising starts drying up, layoffs start. We get to know all the office crew, from the security guy to the big boss. Halfway into the book, Ferris moves away from the collective narrative voice for one chapter. For this one chapter, he adopts a traditional omniscient third person narrator, and comes up with a heck of a few pages that form the emotional backbone of the book. Right after this, the book goes back to our by-now-familiar collective narrator, and turns decidedly darker.
There is a character in Ferris' book that wants to write a novel. He tells us that he would like to write a small, angry book about work. He doesn't quite end up writing it, but does something else quite interesting indeed. Ferris achieves much the same feat. When we start reading the book, we get the feeling that he is going to end up writing some insignificant little thing that is amusing as a 30 minute TV episode, but has no chance of working as a novel. But halfway through, we realize that we are actually witnessing something quite different. Something a little bit more meaningful.
So there it is. We started reading. We were puzzled by the tone, and took some time to get used to it. We fell in love with the characters coming together like a family. We got uneasy at the interlude. We grew progressively more pensive as the family fell apart. And then, satisfyingly, fittingly, we came to the end.