Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris
14 May, 2014
March’s book group choice was Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, a book I’ve had on my shelves for a number of years, started it once and got distracted, one which I’ve pondered time and again to choose myself for book group. So I’m happy that it was chosen and that I would finally read it.
Published in 2007 to wide acclaim, Ferris’ dismantling of modern working life stitched closely with the modern office space is at first glance a funny, witty take on the absurdities of working life amongst the intellectual, overpaid and jaded professionals in 21st century Chicago. Set in an advertising conglomerate, Ferris’ characters are wide-ranging: from grieving Janice, to shy, slightly chubby Jewish Benny who has a crush on hard-talking Marcia, the eccentric and over-the-top Tom Mota to the paranoid Chris Yob. There is also hard-working advertising genius Joe Decker and their boss Lynn Mason who may or may not have breast cancer. There is a panoply of characters, each individual idiosyncratic in their neuroses and yet all fading into one interchangeable persona once they step into their offices. They gossip, work deadlines, gossip more, tell stories about one another; their life one boring, overpaid cycle. Until the layoffs begin. And this is where Ferris’ mastery lies. The slow creeping paranoia as one person after another is made to walk the Spanish plank. The uncertainties, the rumours, the meltdowns. And then their is Lynn, stoic in her real or phantom medical crisis, workaholic, single, scary.
Ferris has a real touch for humour. It’s clever, well-observed, detailed. And yet, it isn’t mean. There is a kernal of compassion in his observations which is what makes reading Then We Came to the End rather sad. His characters are aware of their absurd lives and yet the flashes of enjoyment and love they feel for their jobs once in a while is what keeps them there as does their fat salaries.
Then They Came To The End is written well, the prose crystal in what it is trying to show about these people. The comic moments are absurd and shocking. And yet, it is depressing. It reminds me of the futility of work in a corporate setting. Of why people would want to leave their huge salaries and go off and do their own thing. The boredom, the people, the stupid work. And yet we all do it because that is all we know to survive and that is how the world is. You can laugh at the small absurdities of corporate life at the beginning, but then it starts to eat away at you and you are left empty. But life still goes on and we somehow manage.
The only gripe we had was that it would have been perfect if it was shorter. You can’t deny Ferris’ brilliance, but it just goes on and on and on and after a while, the details overwhelm you and make you dizzy. And a little bored. We all struggled to finish the book. But ultimately, it is a brilliant depiction of modern working life which most of us have experienced to some extent and, if we are lucky, plan to leave in one piece.