You are being redirected - hold on tight!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Book Review: Then We Came To The End Puts the "We" in Ennui

Book Review by Noah Mallin

Joshua Ferris was once an ad man and the experience seems to have scarred him for life. Lucky us because his debut novel, Then We Came to the End out in paperback now, joins the canon of great modern office art. I don't mean the posters with the little kitty clutching a limb and the legend "Hang in There" emblazoned across the bottom, I mean art inspired by the office work experience. On some level Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road captured a piece of this as far back as 1961 but films like Office Space and both the American and British versions of The Office on TV make the collective hive of the work environment a subject and character in and of itself.

Ferris chooses an initially off-putting technique to convey the team consciousness of the workplace. Most of Then We Came to the End is narrated in the first person plural as in, "We asked Yop how long ago this was." Like starting a new job, it takes some time to acclimate to the rhythm this imposes but after a while it becomes second nature. It's also a device that captures some of the groupthink that exists in the specific setting - an ad agency that is very tied to the dotcom boom of the late 90s.

As they start to run into financial trouble and the layoffs begin, so too does the paranoia. There is a great sequence involving the office furniture, serial numbers and using the chairs of ex-employees that captures a measure of the Kafka-esque circus an office can be.

There is also a stretch mid-book where the narrative form changes and we get to know the boss Lynn, who is rumored to have cancer (no-one can trace the rumour's source). Although it's a bit disorienting it's also a very affecting part of the novel, and there is a nice payoff to it later on.

Ultimately Then We Came to the End is quite funny while also being awfully bleak, something it has in common with much of the best office art. It's a little sobering to think about which character one most resembles -- especially when we do get to end. Are we the guy whose office everyone hangs out in, the woman who is resented for always having the best idea, the grind, the wild man, the one everyone denigrates? It's telling that Ferris goes beyond stereotypes to build real characters out of most of these people and letting their petty and their noble sides jostle together.

Full of surprises, insight, tenderness and brutally comic satire, Then We Came to the End is a delight.

No comments: