Saturday, July 12, 2014

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

There was a time in my life where in my spare time I wrote novels. Lately, it seems, I have much less spare time than I had before, and during what little spare time I have my mind is too tired to appropriately engage in the heady work of novel writing. Now, I watch a lot of old science fiction TV shows on Netflix. But back when I was working diligently on my last unfinished work, I joined a writers workshop and took my ten-page chapters there every other week to read them aloud and get some critical feedback from the dozen or so other unpublished novelists in the room.

It was a useful experience, and there are parts of it that I still miss. But I’m really only bringing it up here because one of the participants told me that the book I was writing reminded him of Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. I didn’t need any other prompting. I think I bought the book the following week, but only now got around to reading it.

It was enjoyable--and, yes, similar to the book I was writing but only in its setting and general themes. Like my work, Ferris’s setting is the workplace and his themes include the institutionalized logic and loneliness that subsumes so much of our professional lives. From the back cover:

No one knows us in quite the same way as the men and women who sit beside us in department meetings and crowd the office refrigerator with their labeled yogurts. Every office is a family of sorts, and the Chicago ad agency Joshua Ferris depicts in his exuberantly acclaimed first novel is family at its best and worst, coping with a business downturn in the time-honored way: though gossip, elaborate pranks, and increasingly frequent coffee breaks. With a demon’s eye for the details that make life worth noticing, Joshua Ferris tells an emotionally true and funny story about survival in life’s strangest environment--the one we pretend is normal five days a week.

But unlike my work, it is told in an odd yet engaging third person plural. The narrator, it seems, is the group--the group of people who work at this agency and who both drive and observe the events that are depicted. From the novel’s opening sentences…

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.

...the unique voice of this condescending chorus pulls you in and somewhat effortlessly makes you feel like you are part of the action. It’s partly the voice, but it is also partly the universality of the subject matter. All of us, on one level or another, have had work experiences like the ones described in this novel.

For me, there’s a particularly poignant scene where the group is trying to come up with some stories about a coworker who has passed away--stories that will reveal the uniqueness of his humanity. Like so many of us would in similar circumstances, they struggle.

“What should I have told the man?” Benny asked us, long after his uploading was complete, and all we could agree on was the sight of Brizz smoking outside the building in winter in nothing to keep him warm but his sweater vest. That was a story Brizz owned, but was it a story? Or we might have told him about the talk with the building guy, but that wasn’t much of a story either. To be honest, what we remembered most about Brizz was his participation, along with the rest of us, in the mundane protocols of making a deadline--Brizz’s nicotine stink on a conference call listening to a client’s change in directions, Brizz sitting behind his desk with his reading glasses, carefully and methodically proofreading copy before an ad went to print. Hard to build an anecdote out of that.

And with this realization, suddenly piercing through their well-worn veil of protective aloofness, comes real outrage.

Good god, why had nobody stopped him? Why had we never, not one of us, stopped, turned around, and said, Knock knock. Sorry to interrupt you when you’re proofreading, Brizz. Why had we not gone in, sat down? Yeah, you smoke Old Golds, you keep a messy car--but what else, Brizz, what else? Would closing the door help? What fucked you up as a kid and what woman changed your life and what is the thing you will never forgive yourself for? What, man, what? Please! We walked past. Brizz never looked up. How many times did we end up down at our own offices, doing pretty much the same things, preparing for some deadline now come and gone, while Brizz lived and breathed with all the answers a hundred feet down the hall?

Their struggle and their outrage is a result of the fact that none of them really ever knew their co-worker Brizz, even though they all worked with him every single day. This tension between togetherness and loneliness, between the members of a team who don’t really know each other, is something Ferris uses throughout the novel.

One of the characters in the group is (of course) an aspiring novelist, and he is working on a novel loosely based on their situation and the people in their office. Here, he talks to another group member about how he tried to depict their boss, a woman named Lynn Mason.

“In the first book I tried to write,” he explained, “the book I put down, I based a character on Lynn, and I made that character into a tyrant. I did it on principle, because anyone who was a boss in that book had to be a tyrant. Anyone who believed in the merits of capitalism, and soul-destroying corporations, and work work work--all that--naturally that person wasn’t deserving of any sympathy. But when I decided to retire that book, thank god, and write something different, I knew she was sick, so I went to see her. Just on a lark. Because what did I know about her? Nothing, really. I didn’t know her--not in any meaningful way. And it turned out she was very open to talking to me, not only about her sickness, but also her personal life, a lot of other things.

Ferris makes this point exceedingly well--that people who work together often know next-to-nothing about each other, and never to such an outrageous degree as between a supervisor and those supervised. Indeed, Lynn herself at one point muses…

When she left, no doubt she realized how little she knew about the individual lives of the people who worked for her, how impossible it was to get to know them despite little efforts here and there…

But Lynn is actually someone Ferris allows the reader to know exceedingly well, as he devotes a long, straight third-person interlude in the middle of the novel--a kind of short story--entirely to Lynn, her life outside the office, and the ovarian cancer that she is beginning to privately battle. In this interlude, we see Lynn as the frail human being she is, not the somewhat monstrous monolith those who report to her think she must be.

In fact, the only thing that distracts me from seeing Lynn as a whole person is the author’s sometimes heavy-handed use of iconic Chicago locations. In the span of two pages, Lynn and her erstwhile boyfriend visit both Gino’s East for some deep dish pizza, and then go to the Art Institute, where it must be mentioned that they find themselves standing in front of Georges Seurat’s giant painting. Honestly, I found myself wondering if they were going to get stuck in a parade with Ferris Bueller next.

But that might be nitpicking. The larger point is that in coming to know Lynn Mason as the person she is, the reader comes to understand how unconscious, out-of-touch, and just plain wrong the collective chorus storyteller that dominates the rest of the novel actually is.

Indeed, as the chorus itself says when it finds itself stuck up against a deadline...

Simultaneously we all fell to the hard carpet and began to pray. We prostrated ourselves before her, our pathetic and undeserving selves, and pleaded for mercy. More time--please give us more time! It must be said: we were small, scared, spineless people.

They are that. And shockingly, perhaps, so are we.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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