We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly. We walked around our new offices with our two minds.
Then We Came to the End was Joshua Ferris’ first novel. I knew about it before I read it mostly because it was written in the first-person plural. We did this, then we did that, so-and-so told us about that guy. The cast is a group of employees in an advertising agency on the down-and-out. I think this one could have been chopped down a bit, but what’s there is still pretty good. And it reads so quickly, it’s not a big deal. The setting and tone reminded me a lot of Matt Beaumont’s book, “E”. The employees gossip, connive, overreact, speculate. Ferris has a great ear and eye for the office, a great observer of office life:
He came by each one of our individual offices, he visited the cubicles and the receptionists. We even saw him talking to one of the building guys. They hardly said anything to anyone, the building guys. Just stood on their ladders handing things up and down to one another, speaking in hushed tones.
And body language:
You didn’t talk about money or job security during a time of layoffs, not in the tone she had taken, and not when you were friends. The silence extended into awkward territory.
“I wasn’t trying to be snide just then,” she said, finally sitting down, reaching out to touch the edge of his desk as if it were a surrogate for his hand.
And this bit about cuts and promotions:
The point was we took this shit very seriously. They had taken away our flowers, our summer days, and our bonuses, we were on a wage freeze and a hiring freeze, and people were flying out the door like so many dismantled dummies. We had one thing still going for us: the prospect of a promotion. A new title: true, it came with no money, the power was almost always illusory, the bestowal a cheap shrewd device concocted by management to keep us from mutiny, but when word circulated that one of us had jumped up an acronym, that person was just a little quieter that day, took a longer lunch than usual, came back with shopping bags, spent the afternoon speaking softly into the telephone, and left whenever they wanted that night, while the rest of us sent e-mails flying back and forth on the lofty topics of Injustice and Uncertainty.
They all have the ring of truth. Sandwiched between the sillier bits, there’s a pretty amazing little intermezzo chapter, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be”. That one focuses on one of the characters, a manager, who’s struggling to face an upcoming surgery. It’s quite touching.
As the book carries on, the loose, manic tone can start to wear a bit thin. But then, the mood does change. Employees are fired or move on. This “we” that you’ve been a part of breaks up. Former co-workers reunite, have a few drinks, and move on. In the end, the most clever part about that narration is that I really related to it, as corny as it might sound. What makes this book worthwhile is not that it pokes fun at office life, but it helps you to value it.
There is plenty of good discussion of the book elsewhere. I also thought this comparison of “Then We Came to the End” with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried” was really interesting.