Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

In my blog about Office of Desire I mentioned wishing more books were set in offices, and Steve kindly recommended this book. It is all that I wanted and more.

Set in an ad agency on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Ferris’s first novel captures the nuances of office life, from the race to get the stale cookies in the break room to the personal email mistakenly sent to the entire company. His office dwellers play pranks on each other to ease the daily boredom and fight over office chairs left behind by a departing employee. They have their own version of Celebrity Death Watch, betting on which co-worker will die next.

Ferris perfectly describes the shifting alliances, the secret crushes, and the surprising friendships that tie a workgroup together. Their interactions are hilarious and all too familiar. The subtle hierarchies are very well done: each person is desperate to move up to the next level, from Art Director to Senior Art Director to Associate Creative Director, even as they realise that the new job title “came with no money, the power was almost always illusory, the bestowal a cheap shrewd device concocted by management to keep us from mutiny”.

Where Ferris really shines, though, is in the relationship between workers and management. Lynn Mason, the partner they work for, has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer according to the office rumor mill. Caught between sympathy and excitement, they spend hours—hours when they are supposedly working—comparing notes about Lynn’s health and picking apart shreds of information. Their affection for Lynn coexists with not only respect but also fear of her and for her. Somewhere in the middle is Joe Pope, a man who bikes to work regardless of the weather and holds himself aloof from the group, refusing to get involved in the rumor-mongering and petty spats. Joe is trusted by Lynn and used by her as an intermediary, thus earning the group’s envy and inevitable hazing.

Best of all, Ferris has written the story in rare first person plural—”we”—which is a terribly difficult point of view to keep interesting. He succeeds brilliantly. And what could be more appropriate for a story about a herd of office workers? He makes it work by shocking us with the unexpected but completely accurate detail: “Karen Woo always had something new to tell us and we hated her for it.”

Individuals do emerge, such as Tom Mota who wants to throw his computer against the window when he finds out that he’s been laid off, but doesn’t because it would be too embarrassing if the window didn’t break. Or Benny Shassburger, the storyteller of the group, who comes and lounges in the doorway when he’s bored. Among the copywriters, Hank Neary is working on a “failed” novel and Don Blattner writes unproduced screenplays. When Don finally gives up on his dream of becoming a famous writer, the group is dismayed: “We took back all our ridicule and practically begged the man to continue . . .”

As Steve said in his recommendation, the book is especially timely now because it is set in a company caught in an economic downturn and starting to lay off employees. Instead of inspiring them to work harder, the threat of being laid off increases the amount of time spent gossiping in the hallway or over long lunches. All the little games to avoid working continue. But then a curious thing happens. They finally start to work on a project, determined to outdo each other, but as they work they begin to take ownership of the project, to care about the quality of the end product, and—however enviously—applaud the good work done by others. I laughed; I cried; I was moved. This is simply a terrific book.

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