Monday, April 14, 2008

Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris

This first novel has been astoundingly successful, and it addresses an issue not often found in contemporary literature--corporate work life. The story takes place in an advertising agency in Chicago, which began during the tech boom of the 1990s, but began to run out of steam at the end of 2000.

Written in the unusual first person plural, the book is narrated by the aggregate "we" of the agency. "We" drink our first cup of coffee, or "we" stopped by someone's office to get the latest gossip. There are plenty of individual characters, but those characters are sometimes subsumed into the amorphous "we."

By the time the novel gets underway, the agency is under serious financial pressure, and layoffs have begun. No one actually likes their job, it seems, but none of them want to be let go either. Each layoff is met with a "why'd they let him/her go" and a "thank God it wasn't me." The awkward leave taking, the sad scavenging of office furniture--all the mundane and nasty gossip of a workplace is represented, made toxic by the slow squeeze of financial failure.

For most of the book, there is only one project in the entire office, and it's pro bono at that. A possibly fictitious client, The Alliance Against Breast Cancer, wants the firm to develop a fundraising campaign. Two days later, the project changes--develop something that would make a breast cancer patient laugh. Everyone is absolutely stumped: what the hell is funny about breast cancer? And if I can't find something funny about breast cancer, will I be the next person laid off?

Meanwhile, the rumor circulates that the partner in charge of their team has breast cancer herself. She has never told anyone, yet everybody knows. Until the day comes when her surgery was scheduled, and she spends the entire day in the office. "We" can't tolerate this: does she have cancer or not? Who told us she had cancer if she didn't? Who is to blame? How can we not know? We need to know.

The center part of the book is the heart and soul of the story. Lynn Mason does in fact have breast cancer, and she is having a hell of a time dealing with it. Written in third person, it follows Lynn as she leaves the office the night before her surgery and struggles to find the right place to be, the one right thing to do this last night before the operation. In the end, it is her paralyzing fear that leads her back to her office at one in the morning, and she simply refuses to leave. There are two new business proposals, and if the agency can land these accounts, the firm will be saved. She simply doesn't have time for an operation--it is the work that is important.

"We" reappear after this interlude, and "we" resort to the most ridiculous strategems to find out if Lynn really has cancer. Two of the employees confront her in her office, and she tells them that no, she does not have breast cancer and she has no idea why they think she does.

Meanwhile, we see the odd behaviors of the people who have been laid off. One man returns to dismantle an office chair, smuggles it out of the building, and then throws each piece as far as he can into Lake Michigan. Another man returns, dressed as a clown, carrying a gun. He starts shooting those people with whom he had disagreements, working his way through the building reciting quotations from Emerson and causing panic and fear. "We" are forced to confront our horror of dying while at work, but when the gun is revealed to be a paint gun, only one person actually resigns and changes his career to something that makes him happier.

This review in no way captures the power of this book. Ferris has caught the all consuming bitterness of competition in a supposedly collegial workplace, made worse by the inexorable squeezing of failure: one can almost feel the walls closing in and the ceiling lowering as time passes and the business continues to fail. Ferris also captures the odd scurrying panic such a time engenders--"we" are afraid to stop and enjoy a cup of coffee, because being seen enjoying a cup of coffee would indicate that "we" weren't working and thus were expendable. Even though the only "work" there was to do was pro bono, and so wasn't remunerative anyway.

This is definitely a book worth reading.

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