Sunday, July 8, 2007

Then We Came to the End

Review of a debut novel by Joshua Ferris; Toronto Star, early 2007.

Joshua Ferris’s debut is billed as a comic novel about office life, and it is, sort of.

But don’t get the wrong idea. The Brooklyn-based writer’s book doesn’t make reaching jabs at the absurdity of corporate America. It isn’t cluttered with satirical acronyms and company jargon à la George Saunders or David Foster Wallace. It doesn’t try to impress upon us how numbing and dehumanizing the capitalist superstructure is. (If anything, its characters are all too human.)

In fact, what Then We Came to the End has to say about office life is so straightforward and modest that it hardly needs to be said: Work is a force that gives us meaning, except when it doesn’t.

Which is just fine. Because the real insight that drives this novel is of a different, more behind-the-scenes nature: Since a workplace brings together many people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to associate with one another, it’s a prime window onto human nature under minor stress, and is full of possibility for drama and comedy. That this actually seems like a fresh idea says more about the failings of contemporary fiction than it does about the wisdom of Ferris; for example, the makers of the American sitcom The Office – surely one of the best things on TV right now – have already figured out the same thing. But it’s a welcome starting point nonetheless.

The workers in Then We Came to the End work at a large Chicago ad agency in the year 2001. They have fond memories of the recent boom – a smorgasbord of comradely late-night work sessions and fat bonuses – but now business has dried up and management has begun to lay people off. So the employees who are left pretend to look busy: they surf the Internet; they write bad screenplays; they photocopy entire novels and read them at their desks.

And they gossip. Mostly they gossip. About Tom Mota, who’s been issuing threatening mass-email proclamations ever since being laid off. About Carl Garbedian’s nervous breakdown. About Chris Yop, who after his own layoff still skulks around the office, trying to pitch ideas. About Amber Ludwig, who’s pregnant with Larry Novotny’s baby and hasn’t decided whether to have an abortion (Larry is married). About Janine Gorjanc, whose daughter has been murdered. And especially about the boss, Lynn Mason, who may or may not have breast cancer and who may or may not have backed out of a mastectomy at the last minute.

All that gossip is relayed in first-person plural narration, evoking a kind of group consciousness. (Jeffrey Eugenides used the same technique to strong effect in The Virgin Suicides.) The novel’s opening lines set the tone: “We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. This happened all too infrequently.”

It’s tempting to read that stylistic choice as a comment on the submerging of identity in a corporate setting, but Ferris seems to be going for something fresher than that. What’s most striking is the way the mass viewpoint fails to transcend the individual characters’ neuroses and blind spots. If anything, the group narrator’s understanding of the various crises that beset employees seems even more faulty, gap-riddled, and confused than any singular narrator’s would be. The herd’s wisdom adds up to something less than the sum of the parts.

Which is no doubt the point: Then We Came to the End emerges as a book about the frustrations of partial information, frustrations that are only exacerbated in a large and complicated social milieu. At its best, the novel raises this theme to an almost existential pitch. A simple line like “We hated not knowing something” refers to petty office squabbles and personal catastrophes, but also evokes a continuum of not knowing that points all the way to big meaning-of-life questions – which the characters pointedly ignore. Not knowing is the human condition.

Happily, though, the narrative is also grounded in specific detail and texture, and built on overlapping, small-scale anecdotes. That includes some entertaining descriptions of the business at hand; Ferris worked at an ad firm himself, and the campaigns he describes bear the mottled hues of verisimilitude. Some of the office hijinks are low comedy (a sushi roll left to rot behind a bookshelf), and some of them creak a bit (there’s a long episode about the battle to scavenge the more-comfortable desk chairs of laid-off colleagues), and some of them are brazenly whimsical (a nebbishy art director inherits a giant totem pole from a dead co-worker), but somehow together they all work within the novel’s insular world.

Despite the book’s episodic nature, a growing urgency does gather around two things: Tom Mota’s mental state – will he show up armed and angry one day? – and Lynn Mason’s cancer. At the same time, the pacing is leisurely enough that we live with the characters awhile, which is one of the book’s greatest charms. At first, those characters seem to be built on sitcom shorthand – the brassy one, the fearful one, the eager one – but many of them transcend those origins, becoming rounder and more nuanced as time passes. Or rather, as time circles: another of the book’s charms is the way its incidents and anecdotes range back and forth but return again and again to the brief span of a couple weeks in the spring of 2001.

If there’s a disappointment in Then We Came to the End, it’s that Ferris doesn’t quite have the will to stay within the world he creates. A chapter in the middle of the book is related solely from Lynn Mason’s point of view on the eve of her mastectomy, and while it’s a careful and sympathetic portrait of her mental state, it would have worked better as a short story – here it only subtracts from the novel’s cumulative power. Similarly, an epilogue set in 2006 provides a cozy sense of summing up, complete with the revelation that one of the minor characters has legitimized the group’s experiences by writing a novel about them. The only novel we readers need, though, is the one we’re reading; in a book about uncertainty and and missed connections and elusive meaning, these steps seem too much like a retreat.

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