Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Review 031208

"Then We Came to the End," by Joshua Ferris

The one thing that's hard to understand about Joshua Ferris's debut novel is how it didn't find a larger audience. "Then We Came to the End" received great critical reception and was nominated for the National Book Award. Still it seems to have been ignored though it's far more accessible than the novel that won the National Book Award, Denis Johnson's "Tree Smoke."

"Then We Came to the End" is the story of a Chicago advertising firm in the midst of the Internet crash, which forces layoffs at the firm and creates an almost anything-goes atmosphere. Ferris writes about a large cast, and the personalities and roles he captures are recognizable to anyone who has worked in an office, or at any job for that matter. While the novel is without question an 'office' book, Ferris's greatest accomplishment is to take the specific actions of his characters and make them feel universal; somehow we've experienced, or can believe, the world Ferris has created.

When Ferris spends pages (and pages) on chair politics, the reader who has spent any time sitting at a desk in office knows it's not a ridiculous premise:
"Are you absolutely sure that this is the guy who took your chair" [Marcia] asked the production peon. The production peon said no, he wasn't sure of that at all. Marcia had no idea whose chair she had. It might have been hers, it might have been Ernie Kessler's, or it might have been the chair of some indeterminate third party. The only person who knew for certain was the office coordinator, who owned the master list (of chair serial numbers). Marcia returned to her office beset by the high anxiety typical of the time.

The passage above gets across two things in Ferris's novel: first, his willingness to entertain ridiculous office behaviour; second, Ferris's humour. The novel, just less than 400 pages, is propelled by the author's ability to make the reader laugh - out loud, too.

And that may be a reason to stick with the book even if you find the first-person plural narration hard to get accustomed to. Ferris opens the novel, "We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen... " And he continues that way for most of the novel. There's is one significant, well-writen interlude narrated in a close-third-person. After a bit, 'We' becomes unnoticeable; it seems right.

One complaint about "Then We Came to the End" is that if people want a funny satire about an office, they're better off watching "The Office." That would be a legitimate complaint if Ferris was trying to write "The Office: The Novel." He's not. "Then We Came to the End" is an office satire on a much larger scope. But whereas "The Office" keeps you watching because of the uncomfortable awkward behaviour of some of its characters, Ferris keeps you reading because he reminds why you stuck with that job even when you told everyone you hated it.


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