Tender view of Life among the Cubicles
Then We Came to the End
By Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown; 385 Pages; $23.99
If you conflated the bomber squadron in "Catch-22" with the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Co. in "Tropic of Capricorn," you might come up with the ad agency that is the setting for Joshua Ferris' first novel, "Then We Came to the End". These characters toil at concocting campaigns for new products, but the atmosphere will be familiar to anyone who's ever spent time in a cubicle. There are the usual personalities -- the office know-it-all, the co-worker who never fails to make a negative remark, the supervisor giving ambiguous or contradictory instructions -- in a world of office politics and constantly shifting alliances, where rumours blossom from untraceable sources and a person recounting some juicy gossip can suddenly find himself without an audience as a result of the announcement that there are bagels in the kitchen.
"Then We Came to the End" falls into three parts. After a prologue set in the '90s, where the economy is still afloat on the dot-com bubble, the first section is half comedy, half pain. The recession of the dot-com bust has hit, and people are being laid off weekly. Frightened co-workers keep their heads down and try to avoid being the next one to be handed a pink slip. "How would our bills get paid? And where would we find new work? We knew the power of the credit card companies and the collection agencies and the consequences of bankruptcy. Those institutions were without appeal. They put your name into a system, and from that point forward vital parts of the American dream were foreclosed upon. ... This was just before the fall of the dollar, before the stormy debate about corporate outsourcing, and the spectre of a juggernaut of Chinese and Indian youths overtaking our advantages in broadband."
The second section is unexpectedly affecting, the account of a female partner at the agency who is suffering from breast cancer. "Lynn Mason was intimidating, mercurial, unapproachable, fashionable, and consummately professional. She was not a big woman -- in fact, she was rather petite -- but when we thought of her from home at night, she loomed large. When she was in a mood, she didn't make small talk. She dressed like a Bloomingdale's model and ate like a Buddhist monk."
Now in her early 40s and never married, Lynn spends the evening before exploratory surgery and a possible mastectomy driving around thinking about a boyfriend with whom she has recently broken up and wondering how she is going to steel herself to walk through the hospital doors in the morning.
In the final section, a plot that seems headed toward tragedy involving a disgruntled former employee swerves into farce. A short epilogue set four years later arrives finally at reconciliation and some wisdom, though the pieces fall into place a little too easily.
"Then We Came to the End" is very good at capturing the interactions between co-workers, depicting a company as a family of sorts, with all a family's love and annoyance, the kind that make you defend a co-worker vigorously one day and want to stick a knife in him the next. Ferris knows that, for all our complaints about work ("Can you believe it's only three-fifteen?"), our jobs are what give structure and meaning to our lives and that the fear of losing a job is motivated by far more than the simple loss of a paycheck.
Ferris cleverly uses the first person plural voice to tell his story -- his narrator is an anonymous "we." "We opened a new Quark document, or took out our pencils. Every once in a while a nicely sharpened pencil would crack on the page upon impact and we'd have to go in search of the one electronic pencil sharpener. That was annoying. Back in our chairs we drummed the eraser between our teeth. If a stray paper clip happened to be lying around we were likely to bend it out of shape. Some of us knew how to make a misshapen paper clip into a projectile that could hit the ceiling." This type of narration makes the reader an employee of the firm, part of the us-against-them group of co-workers in a constant struggle, now trying to curry favour with management, now conducting guerrilla operations against what they perceive as unjust decisions.
As with a well-written TV sitcom, you come to care about the characters -- hard-bitten Marcia, Benny with a secret crush, Jim who is always the last to hear, aggrieved Carl -- though the characterisations don't go much deeper than a sitcom. "Then We Came to the End" is an assured debut and an entertaining read.
This review first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007