I finished Joshua Ferris’s 2007 novel Then We Came to the End recently and found it a pleasure to read. A friend recommended it to me because of its portrayal of the workplace and because of its interesting point of view, and I liked the book on both counts. The novel takes place almost entirely in an advertising agency and is about a group of “creatives,” or the people who dream up ideas for ads. It tells about workplace habits and rituals, crazy colleagues, scary bosses, endless gossip, and, after a while, layoffs. Most of my jobs haven’t been typical 9-5 office jobs, but still I could recognize the world Ferris describes, and he’s captured it perfectly.
It starts off at a leisurely pace, describing the main characters and their quirks and telling some of the most famous stories, as though author and reader were taking part in one long gossip session. All this is funny and insightful. The characters do their work but have plenty of time left over for hanging out in each other’s offices, dreaming up jokes and pranks, and sometimes carrying on flirtations or trying to recover from workplace love affairs gone wrong. You don’t get a whole lot of information of the lives the characters lead outside of work, just brief summaries. Instead, work seems like their whole world, even though they see their time outside the office as precious. Work is what gives them a feeling of belonging and purpose, and even though they love their weekends, in this novel, it’s the weekdays that are full of life.
Once the layoffs start, the tension picks up, as everyone wonders who will be next and how they will manage to fill their time and look busy, when there isn’t much work. There are other sources of tension as well, particularly with their boss, Lynn, who may or may not be desperately ill. Everyone begins to wonder whether some of their more unstable colleagues who have been laid off might not return to revenge themselves on the people who cast them out. There’s a clear dividing line between the days, set in the boom years of the 1990s, when success and money came easily, and the harder times at the turn of the century where worry and suspicion began to take over. This isn’t really a 9/11 novel, but Ferris deals with the day in an understated way that’s powerful and effective.
Besides all the workplace stuff, the other thing the book is interesting for is its point of view, which is first person plural. The narrator says “we” and “us” all the way through, as though it were the collective voice of the agency speaking. This captures the sense of community — even a troubled one — that exists in the office and also the feeling that gossip is what unites the place more than the work they do. Reading “we knew,” “we heard,” “we believed,” “we gathered” over and over again makes it feel like the people don’t so much have individual identities as that they find their identity through participation in the group. As more and more people quit or are let go, this sense of the group becomes strained — it’s their world falling apart.
I don’t imagine it’s easy to use this unusual point of view so consistently through an entire novel, but Ferris pulls it off perfectly.