Books »Then We Came to the End

then we came to the endFrom the hyperbolic praise on the back cover comparing Joshua Ferris's debut effort to that of Donna Tartt's and Joseph Heller's, I had pretty high expectations. Not that I quite expected it to live up to such comparisons (as you may or may not know, I adore The Secret History and it's one of the few books that I've actually re-read), but I did envision a sort of literary melding of the Office TV series and Office Space: a light, clever novel that would have me chuckling at its witty office etiquette observations. What I read was much more tragic.

Set during the dot bomb, the threat of being laid off (the characters refer to it “walking Spanish down the hall”) looms heavily over the collective “we” (the book is told in second person) at a Chicago advertising firm. This cloud of possible doom exposes the extreme frailty of the company men and women –?hich really is extreme at times, the office is surreally stacked with particularly unhinged, depressed, and weary men who are just one awkward step away from going completely over the edge. The women fair questionably better as they weather tragedies rooted not in their weaknesses of character, but outside forces like heart breaking loss and illness.

What begins as an almost abstract and expansive reflection on working life, a reflection that anyone who spends their days in a modern office (particularly right now, as massive lay offs are announced daily) can at least partially identify with, switches gears about halfway through to become more compassionate, more focused and, in my mind, less successful. Much of the first half of the book is spent analyzing the nature of the feeble connections we build with the people we work with every day, people we would never choose to spend any time with – ever – if we didn't work with them. So it seemed odd to me when Ferris suddenly tried to wring so much sympathy from these characters he'd spent so long depersonalizing.

The characters are pretty well drawn and I'd be surprised if they weren't inspired by actual (exaggerated) anecdotes, but often times they're taken only as far their predictable conclusions can go. Still, for all my minor qualms with the latter half of the book, it is entertaining and wonderfully insightful when it comes to the strange group mentality of office environments, the storm of paranoia, rumors, and boredom that can manifest in buildings full of strangers with nothing more important to do than speculate and worry about what's happening in the next cubicle and the beautiful irony of how so many loathe they're jobs until those jobs are threatened – which is when they'll suddenly do anything to keep them.

Ferris is a promising writer and I'm looking forward to reading his next book.

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Posted on February 2, 2009

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