Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End
Little Brown, 2007

One might accuse writers like Doug Harris and Joshua Ferris of trying to be clever in having chosen unusual narrative perspectives for their novels: You comma Idiot is told in the second-person and Then We Came to the End is told in the first-person-plural.

But while they are clever, each writer chose his perspective for specific reasons: Doug Harris because Lee is truly talking to himself, berating and chiding, and Joshua Ferris because the workplace has its own collective identity, absorbing and seducing. It’s impossible to imagine either novel being narrated in any other way.

Here is how Joshua Ferris introduces readers into the collective:

“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. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone one and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.”

We. Us. It’s the workplace. But, yes, it could be any workplace really. At this point. Bits like this are familiar to anyone: “We worked in the creative department developing ads and we considered our ad work creative, but it wasn’t half as creative as the work we’d put in to pad our time sheets every Monday morning since layoffs began.” No matter where you work, you’ve been in a position of having to appear as though you’re working harder than you are, for whatever reason.

But, trust me, if you’ve worked in advertising/media companies, you’ll be convinced that Then We Came to the End is about your workplace. (It’s exactly as We have experienced. We know exactly what it’s like there.)

Still, although I think I particularly enjoyed reading this because the verisimilitude was so overwhelming, if like workplace novels, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. And if you like your storytelling with a good portion of irony, you’ll be especially satisfied.

Although not everybody does like workplace novels:
“Hank Neary, our black writer who wore the same brown corduroy suit coat day after day, so that either he never cleaned the one, or had an entire closet full of the sae, was working on a failed novel He described it as ‘small and angry.’ We all wondered who the hell would buy small and angry? We asked him what it was about. ‘Work,’ he replied. A small, angry book about work. Now there was a guaranteed best seller. There was a fun read on the beach. We suggested alternative topics on subjects that mattered to us.”

They (er, we) suggest that the LAST thing anyone wants to read about (and, so, the last thing any writer should write about) is work, but Hank defends his idea by discussing how much of life is spent at work, how much revolves around it, how much of the rest of (y)our life is made to fit around it.

There are a lot of very memorable passages, events, and developments in Joshua Ferris’s first novel; I want to share them with you — and I’m sure you’d like some of them too — but the ultimate power of this novel is that it works as a whole. Even having pulled these three quotes from it seems to cheat it somehow.

(The bizarre and wonderful and horrible thing about working here is that we find ourselves all caught up in it so that the rest of the world losies its meaning. The connections we make here take on the strange intensity of playground rivalries and cruelties and ecstasies and revelries. Our world could easily be mistaken for the world that the rest of you inhabit, but we feel our losses more acutely and our joys more profoundly by virtue of sharing them with the rest of us here and only here.)

Then We Came to the End is not always a comfortable read. Not only are some of the characters incredibly irritating, but there are moments of great sorrow alongside the moments of incredible hilarity. And of course the mere idea of a collective like this won’t work for all readers.

But even if you hate everybody in the novel (but you won’t, although you better not love everybody either because we will unanimously revile you — see the opening lines if you missed this joke), if you admire a well-crafted novel, you’ll be pleased to have read this one.

Jonathan Ferris has told a story that works brilliantly as an organic whole; everything about Then We Came to the End mirrors its contents, from its structure to its characters, from its setting to its cluttered sticky-noted cover image. He doesn’t simply tell stories, he crafts them. Although I wasn’t thinking about that a lot of the time, because I was too busy snorting and smirking, sniffling and grinning.

This is not the first time he has impressed me: I also marvelled at The Unnamed and read one of his short stories in The New Yorker’s 20Under40 series.

Where do you stand on Joshua Ferris? (I’d’ve read this anyway, but yes, he is appearing at this year’s IFOA.)

What do you think about workplace novels?

Companion Reads: Jessica Westhead’s Pulpy & Midge, Rob Payne’s Working Class Zero, Leah McLaren’s The Continuity Girl