Then We Came to the End

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.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Then We Came to the End

  1. I read this book in 2008 and it easily ranked as one of my favorites of that year, perhaps even one of my favorites of all-time. I loved its subtle humor, one that reminded me greatly of the television show “The Office”, but I also loved its humanity and pathos. As much as this book made me laugh, it also made me feel. I loved it dearly, and I’m so glad it made an impression on you as well!

  2. My husband read this and had slightly mixed feelings about it, so I’m very interested to read your positive review here. I can’t remember now what he didn’t like about it, but I think it was something to do with the tone. But still, I’m more encouraged to give it a go now!

  3. I’m not so interested in the 9-5 office gossip, been there, done that. But first person plural pov is intriguing. I’ll have to consider reading this one sometime.

  4. ooh, your review intrigutes me! I’ll definitely look for this the next time I am at the library!

  5. This really does sound a little like “The Office.” It also sounds like something I can really relate to, having lived all my work life in a 9-5 office with a cast of characters that became like family – although at times a dysfunctional one. Great review!

  6. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book from first person plural, but it seems like it would work well with a story like this. I wonder if reading about layoffs might be a little painful as we’ve gone through several rounds of that at the university where I work, but it certainly sounds like he’s captured the atmosphere of working in an office. I’ll have to look for it at the library next time I go.

  7. Steph — how fun that you enjoyed it so much too! Yes, there are definite comparisons to The Office — it was not quite as silly and absurd, but still had the same kind of spirit. His second book hasn’t been quite the same good reviews as the first one did, though.

    Litlove — I’d love to know exactly what your husband didn’t like! The tone worked very well for me, but it’s pretty distinctive and might not work for everyone. I’m very glad to be encouraging!

    Stefanie — yeah, the point of view is pretty cool. I tend to like reading about work — I love academic novels and novels about education in spite of the fact that that’s what I do. So I didn’t have a “been there, done that” response, but I can see how someone might. I wonder what you will think, when/if you do read it!

    Courtney — give it a try and tell me what you thought! I’d love to know.

    Grad — if my general description of the subject matter sounds intriguing to you, then I think you would enjoy this. I think he describes office life quite well.

    Danielle — the only other first person plural book I can think of is a Faulkner short story I teach regularly, “A Rose for Emily.” But that’s a short story, not a novel. Yeah, the subject matter might be a little painful — a little too close to our own times. But still, I think you would enjoy it.

  8. I loved this book. I agree with the comments about it being a bit like “The Office” but I feel like it is “The Office” meets Trollope. I also think it has one of the best opening lines of all time: “We were fractious and overpaid.”

  9. I really liked this book, too. Surprising that very few novels are actually set in the workplace. I loved the collective viewpoint and the humour. Reminded me a little of The Corrections.

  10. Thomas — “The Office” meets Trollope — good description! I agree about the opening line :)

    Nicola — I agree that its surprising more novels aren’t set at work. It’s where most of us spend much of our lives, so why not? It can certainly be interesting to read about.

  11. I read this quite recently and loved it – not least because Ferris picked out so many of the tiny peculiarities of office life.

    I found the plural narration pretty strange though – I couldn’t get over the thought that the narrator must still be a single person and was waiting for someone to say something about the narrator!

  12. I have to say, though it seems I’m in the minority, this book was horrible. My main problem with it: that everyone was so worried about being laid off. This was the main device Ferris used to drive the plot of the book and I just didn’t buy that it was such a big deal, especially because “they” seemed to hate working there! Also, I’ve worked in ad agencies and I thought his portrayal of them felt somewhat plasticized and unreal.
    I know this book has been quite celebrated, but I always scratch my head about why…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s