After I read a good book, I Google it to see what the reviewers wrote. Ordinarily, I discover a general consensus. With Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, the critics diverged. Either they found it a great satirical work—the best comedy of the year—or they found it a tragedy of epic proportions. The critics proved yet again that tragedy is merely the flip side of comedy. I am squarely in the camp of the tragedists.
Written in the vein of The Office, Ferris’ novel shadows the lives of 20 or 30 employees of a prestigious downtown Chicago marketing firm, in the months leading up to and after the Dot.com bust. It describes the employees’ collective fear of not knowing when or to whom the next lay-off will hit; it describes their collective search for free candy and morning bagels; the rabid hunt to grab the best chair from the droves of the recently laid-off and, inevitably, it describes the aftermath of a lay-off.
Where The Office depicts the humor, camaraderie, and day-to-day monotony of the corporate life, it doesn’t dig below the surface of the office workers. It lets us believe they’re satisfied deep down. The Office gave us Office Olympics; Christmas parties of various themes (Dwight’s German party; the tapas party; generic Christmas party; Phyllis as Santa party); and entire work days spent helping Michael fix his love life, helping Dwight relate to women, hosting auctions and yard sales in the warehouse. While Stanley complains, and Dwight lashes out at co-workers who don’t take their work seriously, nobody is truly despondent. Stanley is happy to have a job where he can take his 2 o’clock nap. Pam values in using her art skills to better the office. Jim enjoys working alongside Pam and having time to parent. While they may moan and complain about Michael wasting their time with useless, interminable meetings, they are, on the whole, satisfied with life at Dunder Mifflin. Because we don’t know their families, and we don’t know them as parents and spouses, we don’t wonder what they’re giving up to stay late and help out Michael. Most importantly, the characters themselves don’t question it.
Then We Came to the End describes the same humor, camaraderie, and monotony but with an added, tragic, edge. Read, for example, the very first paragraph of 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. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently. Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness and quality of care. Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it. We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses despite their daily, sometime hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.
While still exposing the humor in the workplace, Ferris reveals its utter inanity, showing how even the workers themselves can’t quite convince themselves that what they’re doing matters at all. Despite this, the employees describe how they give their all to their job: their commute in from the suburbs takes an hour; they work from nine to six, and then they drive home for an hour. Not only that, but they fight and cling desperately to their work so they aren’t the next ones laid off. They are, in fact, desperate to keep their jobs. Why do they do it? They do it because, as a recently divorced co-worker explains to them in an office-wide email,
I’m trying to generate a buck for a client so as to generate a quarter for us so that I can generate a nickel for me and have a penny left over after Barbara gets what the court demands. For that reason I love my job and never want to lose it…
They work because of the
power of the credit card companies and the collection agencies and the consequences of bankruptcy. Those institutions were without appeal. They put your name into a system, and from that point forward a vital part of the American dream were foreclosed upon. A backyard swimming pool. A long weekend in Vegas. A low-end BMW. There were not Jeffersonian ideals, perhaps, on par with life and liberty, but at this advanced stage, with the West Won and the Cold War over, they, too, seemed among our inalienable rights.
Ferris’ use of the first person plural (meaning that the narrator always uses “we” instead of “I”) succeeds spectacularly because it captures the essence of the story—it describes each of the employees as they are seen through the eyes of their co-workers. Characters are described only in relation to the others. Genevieve was the nicest and most beautiful of them all. Marcia the most biting and sardonic. Benny was the co-worker to whom they all came for the gossip and the stories because he told stories better than anybody else. And because of this, they know each other at only the shallow, surface level. Throughout the inanity of the day, the employees cling to the work community they’ve created, to the work personas they’ve developed: the clown; the surgeon’s husband; the gregarious storyteller; the ever-kind one; the adulterer; the mother with the dead child; the mean one; the reserved one.
The co-workers become a “we” because they spend the majority of their waking hours with each other, together, in their office. A “we” trapped in a job they don’t like and don’t desire, with sometimes irritating co-workers. This “we” community mentality explains why they don’t find new jobs; why they don’t becomes nurses or go to India. After establishing that persona and that rapport, it’s easier to just accept your co-workers’ version of yourself and stay put:
Some of us went but most of us stayed . . . we didn’t care for the hassle of meeting new people. It had taken us awhile to familiarize ourselves and to feel comfortable. First day on the job, names in one ear and out the other. One minute you were being introduced to a guy with a head of fiery red hair and fair skin crawling with freckles, and before you knew it you had moved on to someone new and then someone after that.
Is this novel funny? It’s humorous to hear their absurd stories of workplace antics, the most absurd of which is a long tale concerning a chair. Ferris describes these professional, white-collar workers stealing Ernie’s chair, which was in Tom’s office, to move it to Yop’s office, to then move it to Marcia’s office, where it was eventually determined that it was actually not Ernie’s chair, but Singleton’s chair. Then they swapped Yop’s chair, which was previously thought to be Ernie’s, but then determined to be Singleton’s, back in Ernie’s office, to swap the chair in Ernie’s office with the chair in Tom’s office, all so that the Office Coordinator didn’t accuse these employees of stealing. It would be funny, yes, if these grown-up employees weren’t so desperately and earnestly trying to ascertain exactly whose chair was whose, and which chair went where, simply so Management wasn’t given an excuse to lay-them off from the job they didn’t like, and wanted only in order to hold onto their inalienable American rights of a swimming pool, which they really only had time to use on the occasional weekend. Humor, after all, is always tainted by tragedy.
*It wouldn’t be fair to end this review without bringing up Lynn Mason and Joe Pope, the foils of the story. Lynn and Joe are the partner and supervisor, respectively, for the group. They enjoy their job and dedicate their lives to it. Joe asks Lynn, when she questions everything she gave up to become partner, “Has it been worthwhile? The work?” After she says she supposes so, he say “Then you may be better off than they are. Many of them would prefer not to be here, and yet this is where they spend most of their time. Percentagewise, maybe you’re the happiest.” And perhaps, maybe they are.
**My favorite line from the book is when everyone is mad at Benny, the storyteller, for unnecessarily drawing out a story: “We told him to get on with it. We liked wasting time, but almost nothing was more annoying that having our wasted time wasted on something not worth wasting it on.”