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Friday, March 5, 2010

Then We Came to the End

Joshua Ferris's 2007 debut novel made a big splash mainly due to its unconventional narrative style. The book is set in the office of a struggling Chicago advertising agency and is seemingly narrated by a collective consciousness, aware of the thoughts and feelings of each separate person. It can take a little to get used to this "we" (or you might never really get used to it at all) but Ferris sustains it admirably, and even manages to justify the choice.

The "we" adds a level of meaning to what otherwise might have become just a series of comedic, indeed even occasionally hilarious, anecdotes. With the we Then We Came to the End points out the uncomfortable truth that for so many millions of people this office environment, that which we will rail against at every opportunity, actually defines us to a large extent. Ferris uses the narrator to emphasize the near universality of disaffection, disillusionment, and also complacency. The men and women in this office are largely capable of radically changing their existence, but are too comfortable or cowardly to do it.

Instead they engage in childishness and idiocy. Ferris seems to believe that the office culture exacerbates these all-too common faults. His characters mercilessly torment each other, engage in gossip and rumor-mongering, and avoid work as much as possible without being fired.

They are starting to fail at avoiding the ax, though. Bad business is catching up with them, and the introduction of real world problems puts the ridiculousness of stealing ergonomic desk chairs in perspective. More dire tragedy also intervenes in some character's lives, but as it does these characters become more separated from the collective consciousness of the office; they are more talked about than talking. The woman who loses it after the death of her daughter, the man who keeps showing up to work after being fired, and Tom Mota, the irresistibly deranged copywriter whose possible madness and violent temper threaten to throw the universe of Then We Came to the End wholly out of whack, until Ferris reveals the deftness of his touch and the subtlety of his wit with a turn of events that will have readers exhaling as they laugh their asses off.

Then We Came to the End is a clever look at the way most people spend at least one-third of their lives, and the implications that can have on their personalities. It gets 8.3 out of 10.

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