Then We Came to the End
By Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown, March 2007
385 pp., $23.99
"Office politics are bloody-minded, but weak on content," the aphorist Mason Cooley once said. Luckily, Joshua Ferris doesn't see it that way. His debut novel, Then We Came to the End, reads like Dilbert hijacked by Hunter S. Thompson, transforming the absurdities and mundanities of the postmodern office into irony, hilarity, and tragedy.
A veteran of two Chicago advertising agencies, Ferris sets his novel in an unnamed Chicago shop after the dotcom crash. Amid a steady drip of layoffs, his cast of warped creatives is nagged with doubt about the exorbitant fees they bill and the manipulative nature of their work. They generate their own drama to survive the monotony: a steady diet of minor obsessions and pranks. But their greatest distraction is the work itself. "While it lasted," Ferris writes, "work was a wellspring, a real source of light."
Though his characters all lead lives of quiet desperation (an overt reference, actually; the author sprinkles Emerson and Thoreau throughout), Ferris treats them with wit and empathy. Ever human, characters beg and sob during layoffs, mourn pitifully for lost children, and stare into the abyss after finding a lump in the shower. The frosty partner at the heart of the novel--gossiped about as being afflicted with breast cancer--charges her team with developing a pro bono campaign for the Alliance Against Breast Cancer. As the project becomes increasingly "nebulous," speculation rises about the true purpose of the work. Ultimately, as the partner's condition becomes serious, Ferris shifts from a postmodern, sardonic distance to first-person dialogue that puts us inside the drama.
That narrative switch pays off. For all its cynicism and pettiness, Ferris's workplace is a cathartic setting where redemption and revelation are possible. Work, it turns out, isn't just about a profession; it's both personal and purposeful. As easy as it is to dismiss "office life" as an oxymoron, Ferris reminds us it is anything but.