Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

"We asked him what it was about. 'Work,' he replied. A small, angry book about work. Now there was a guaranteed best seller. There was a fun read on the beach. We suggested alternative topics on subjects that mattered to us. 'But those don't interest me,' he said. 'The fact that we spend most of our lives at work, that interests me.'"

While Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, has been heavily marketed as "Very funny" (USA Today), "Hilarious in a Catch-22 way," (Stephen King), and a "successful comedy" (Jim Shephard),  it should be noted that the novel is much more than Office Space in prose form.

Then We Came to the End follows a group of coworkers employed by a failing ad agency in 2000,  post-dot-com-bubble-burst and pre-September-11th.  Written from a third-person collective point of view, Ferris emphasizes the group mentality in the corporate world, the sense of belonging to a larger, more important group.  While the story is ostensibly about "work," however, it soon becomes clear that it is in fact more about the relationships that form between people in the workplace, about the effect that work has on the individual.

The parts of the book that stood out the most to this corporate sell out were those that focused on the attitude people have towards work--it is simultaneously a place of mostly-pleasant socialization and mostly-unpleasant labor.  Ferris' collective thinks with exhaustion about work: "All that work for nothing.  And if we happened to cast back, in search of edification, to days past and jobs completed -- oh, what a bad idea, for what had all that amounted to?  And anticipating future work just made the present moment even more miserable.  There was so much unpleasantness in the workday world."  Yet at the same time, for so many people, "work was everything.  We liked to think it was family, it was God, it was following football on Saturday night, that it was love, that it was sex, that it was keeping out eye on retirement.  But at two in the afternoon with bills to pay and layoffs hovering over us, it was all about the work."

Yet few of the characters in the book actually enjoy their job.  Enjoying one's job is a luxury, and the "creatives" employed at the ad agency are not happy in the truest sense of the word.  (In truth, how many of us would keep our jobs if we won the lottery?)  It is only in retrospect, when one looks back at times when one worked and thinks about the people one worked with, that one finds work mildly pleasant:
The funny thing about work itself, it was so bearable.  The dreariest task was perfectly bearable.  It presented challenges to overcome, the distraction provided by a sense of urgency, and the satisfaction of a task's completion--on any given day, those things made work utterly, even harmoniously bearable.  What we bitched about, what we couldn't let lie, what drove us to distraction and consumed us with b lind fury, was this person or that who rankled and bugged and offended angels in heaven, who wore their clothes all wrong and foisted upon us their insufferable features, who deserved from a just god nothing but scorn because they were insipid, unpoetic, mercilessly enduring, and lost to the grand gesture.  And maybe so, yes, maybe so.  But was we stood there, we had a hard time recalling the specific details, because everyone was so agreeable.
Of all the books I've read in recent memory, this was one that I identified with through and through, all the way up to the second-to-last line.  While the workplace has not traditionally been thought of as "literary," it is literary in that it makes up the majority of human experience for many of us.  I spend 10 hours a day at work.  I talk to my co-workers more than I talk to my family or my friends or my cat.  At the same time, however, it is not "real" life.  I don't know much about the personal lives of the people I work with, and they don't know much about mine.  Work, for me, is a kind of detached alter-universe, where I am always dressed up and I always look busy and I am unfailingly polite and perky (if you can imagine that).  How is the experience of dedicating oneself to forging a new personality, to do a work that is not ultimately satisfying, not literary?

I would heartily recommend this book... unless you're a college student with some semblance of a bubble still to be popped.  Then I would tell you to stay away until you've worn a suit for about two years.

(Incidentally, the A.V. Club will be having an on-line discussion about Then We Came to the End all this week, if you're interested.)

1 comment:

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

By the way, here's a link to a short story Ferris wrote for The New Yorker a couple of years ago. If his new book is as good as his first one (and this short story), I really think he might become one of my favorite writers:

http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2008/08/11/080811fi_fiction_ferris

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