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Then We Came to the End

by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2007)

On its surface, Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, is a lively satire about office life. It begins so well that we wouldn't really care if the set-up gave way to nothing more than a series of sketches. That's not what happens, though. Without ever settling into a linear narrative, the action of "Enter a New Century," the first part of the book (comprising nearly half of its length), thickens around a certain Wednesday in spring. It is as though one's attention were fixed on a leaf caught in the spiral of a current around a drain. At the end, the leaf disappears, and one blinks. Suddenly so much is clear.

Ferris's mastery of tone is complete. Even though his story takes on heft and becomes increasingly serious, he never changes registers. The jokes do not peter out. On the contrary, they intensify. As we get to know the inmates of the offices and cubicles on and around the sixtieth floor of an office building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the jokes become funnier, because one gradually becomes a member of the group. Initially a blur, Karen and Benny and Jim and Hank (the lone black) and the others differentiate themselves from the group - a process concisely described on pages six and seven of my edition - while the narration continues in the first-person plural. Never has community been captured so exhaustively. The "We" of this novel is a magnificent fiction, for a first-person plural point of view is an impossibility. And yet it gives incomparably convincing voice to the caprice and anxiety of a group of young, intelligent people working in a faltering enterprise.  

But it wasn't just our jobs at stake, was it? When we had trouble nailing an ad, our reputations were on the line. A good deal of our self-esteem was predicated on the belief that we were good marketers, that we understood what made the world tick - that in fact, we told the world how to tick. We got it, we got it better than others, we got it so well we could teach it to them. Using a wide variety of media, we could demonstrate for our fellow Americans their anxieties, desires, insufficiencies, and frustrations - and how to assuage them all. We informed you in six seconds that you needed something that you didn't know you lacked. We made you want anything that anyone willing to pay us wanted you to want. We were hired guns of the human soul. We pulled the strings on the people across the land and by god they got to their feet and they danced for us.

What, then, were we to make of an empty sketch pad or blank computer screen? How could we understand our failure as anything but an indictment of us as benighted, disconnected frauds? We were unhip, off-brand. We had no real clue how to tap basic human desire. We lacked a fundamental understanding of how to motivate the low sleepwalking hordes. We couldn't even play upon that simple instrument, embedded within the country's collective primal cortex, that generates fear - a crude and single-note song. Our souls were as screwy and in need of guidance as all the rest. What were we but sheep like them? We were them. We were all we - whereas for so long we had believed ourselves to be just a little bit above the others. One unfinished ad could throw us into these paroxysms of self-doubt and intimations of averageness, and for these reasons - not the promise of gossip or the need for caffeine - we found ourselves driven out of our individual offices that morning and into the company of others.

The campaign in question is preposterous: the agency is to design an add campaign that will make women suffering breast cancer laugh. It is another of Ferris's plausible impossibilities. Then We Came to the End is, in fact, riddled with breast cancer: on the second page, the rumor is reported that Lynn Mason, the group's partner, is dying of it. On the Wednesday mentioned earlier, when she is to have gone into the hospital (according to rumor), she surprises the team by showing up at the office. In fact, as we will learn, she has spent the night there, in a blaze of creative industry. The deadline for the hopeless campaign is advanced, but the team is consumed by the need to know what's going on with Lynn Mason.

We also saw our work that day as doing a personal favor for Lynn, even if we couldn't help feeling that, by choosing not to tell us that she had cancer, she had cheated us of one of our most dearly held illusions - namely, that we were not presently strictly for the money, but could also be concerned about the well-being of those around us.

Then there is the cancer that is destroying the agency. The air goes out of the dot-com bubble long before it bursts, and advertising is one of the hardest-hit industries. The perks of the job are gradually withdrawn. And then the layoffs begin.

At first we called it what you would expect - getting laid off, being let go. Then we got creative. We said he'd gotten the ax, she'd been sacked, they'd all been shitcanned. Lately, a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. "Walking Spanish down the hall." Somebody had picked it up from a Tom Waits song, but it was an old, old expression, as we learned from our Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origin. "In the days of piracy on the Spanish Main," Morris writes, "a favorite trick of pirates was to lift their captives by the scruff of the neck and make them walk with their toes barely touching the deck." That sounded about right to us.

By the time we learn this phrase, a non-conformist named Tom Mota has been let go, and an older guy, Chris Yop, looks doomed. Esprit de corps is seriously beleaguered, and we're still in the first chapter, laughing. That second-person plural point of view includes us, the readers. We're even better off than the characters on the page, because we can't be made to walk Spanish. But we're sitting with them in Benny Shassburger's office, wondering whether the somewhat prim (and extraordinarily Gwyneth-Paltrowish) Genevieve Latko-Devine will stop in on her way to or from Jim Pope's office.

Jim Pope is not one of us. He is, as Tom Mota, of all people, calls him, a saint. This is another way of saying that Joe genuinely wants to do his job well. He is serious; he doesn't gossip with us. By the beginning of the book, he has already been promoted above us (although he is not our boss). He usually works late.  He cycles to the office in the morning, and we think it's very silly of him to lock his bicycle, "like he was beset on all sides by thieves and barbarians." Well, of course he is. It's barbaric of us to feel relief when we're not the one walking Spanish, and its dishonest of us to steal one other's ideas. We're friendly, but we have no reason to trust one another. As to Joe, we're more or less afraid of him. Nobody knows anything about his personal life - and ignorance is crippling.

What we didn't consider was that in a downturn, we were the mismanaged inventory, and we were about to be dumped like a glut of imported circuit boards. On the drive home we puzzled over who was next. Scott McMichaels was next. His wife had just had a baby. Sharon Turner was next. She and her husband had just purchased a home. Names - just names to anyone else, but to us they were the individuals who generated our greatest sympathy. The ones who put their things in a box, shook a few hands, and left without complaint. They had no choice in the matter, and they possessed a quiet resignation to their ill-timed fates. As they departed, it almost felt to us like self-sacrifice. They left, so that we might stay. And stay we did, though our hearts went out to them. Then there was Tom Mota, who wanted to throw his computer against the window.

"We puzzled over who was next. Scott McMichaels was next." The ba-da-bing timing of Ferris's delivery, often involving a sudden and dramatic shift of focus - here, from the woolly we to the all-too-concrete Scott - can be extremely arresting. It's funny, but it also demonstrates that the novel is taking place on several levels. The treacly hypocrisy that follows - self-sacrifice, indeed - represents the moral muck that pollutes everyone in the office except for Joe Pope.

Tom Mota is somewhat out of place in an ad agency. He's very bright, but he's a hothead and a showoff, and he has just lost his everything on the domestic front. His wife has taken their children to Phoenix and a new daddy. To call Tom "upset" is to understate. His tantrums seal his fate. He is dissuaded, however, from throwing his computer against the window; Benny convinces him that the computer will just bounce back. His exit is over the top. He rips his clothes and stands in the lobby, openly begging for money from passers-by. Amber Ludwig - one of us - thinks that Tom is going to come back shooting. But then she's pregnant, and her lover, Larry Novotny, wants her to have an abortion. He has just fathered a legitimate child, and his wife will throw him out if she has to hear about the impending half-sibling. Ferris peels the illicit romance apart (which Larry downplays) from the pregnancy until even the errant father has to give up. 

Then We Came to the End is structured so that Tom Mota is never actually an employee during the narration. We hear all about him, but he's somewhat before our time. Chris Yop is another story. Chris Yop melts down right before our eyes. And then he won't go away! Even after he has been fired, he continues to work on the breast-cancer campaign, as if that would get him his job back. He believes that he has been fired because he switched chairs with Tom Mota, or rather shoved his chair into Tom's office after Tom walked Spanish. It turns out that all the furnishings in the office bear serial numbers (well, duh), and the office coordinator is trying to track down Tom's bookshelves, which Chris has taken. Chris's moral confusion is complete. He has no perspective on what's going on. Fired because of a chair? He shifts the basis of his self-defense with the speed of a saccade. We are glad that he has been laid off, because he is a mess. 

Out of all this - the layoffs, the crazy ad campaign (even Joe has no ideas), the rumors about Lynn, Chris Yop's unlawful appearances in the office, Amber's fear that Tom is going to "go postal" - Ferris has our nerves wracked to the max. This is not the sort of crisis that we only read about it. No, we've all of us - the bulk of Ferris's readers are likely to be professionals of one kind or another - known the maddening uncertainties of the late-capitalist workplace. Then We All Came to the End is certainly not about work, but it is about the workplace. This is the genius of Ferris's "We."

Then Karen Woo, whom we don't like, because she's so full of herself, makes an inappropriate call, and the little leaf disappears down the drain, taking us with it.

The intermezzo that follows, "The Thing to Do and the Place to Be," is unlike "Entering the New Century," but not drastically unlike it. The jokes are replaced by expressions of impatience, but the tone is still very smart. Perhaps a little smarter. The first-person plural gives way to the third. It doesn't take us long to realize that the point of view is Lynn Mason's, or that we're with her on the eve of her surgery - surgery that we already know she will postpone.

"The Thing to Do and the Place to Be" is a stand-alone tour force, the portrait of a clever and ambitious forty-three year-old who has always put work first. "If she had spent a tenth of the energy finding the right man as she has building the agency she started with the other partners, she would be living in Oak Park right now putting dinner plates into the dishwasher." In the space of thirty-odd pages, Mr Ferris gives us the Lynn Mason that "We" would like to know but don't. "We" didn't know, for example, the name of her current boyfriend, like her a successful workaholic. Martin is not the marrying kind - he has made that clear from the start. The affair is somewhat choppy because he's even worse about last-minute cancellations than she is. They can never count on being together. That's all right with Martin, but it's not as all right with Lynn as she has pretended to herself that it is, and now she discovers both that she loves Martin and that, exposed to consciousness, her love for him collapses. I was reminded of "The Dead," from James Joyce's Dubliners. I was reminded of "The Generator," from Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. I felt the power with which I was being made intimate with the inner life of an intensely private woman.

The section's title is ironic, because of course Lynn doesn't know what the thing to do is on the night before major surgery, a night that she thinks she has to spend alone because Martin is working. Neither does she know the place to be. She starts at her apartment, ordering in Chinese and drinking wine in her pyjamas while watching television. That fizzles out. Suddenly, she's cleaning out her closet, and, just as suddenly, asking herself if she's crazy to be cleaning a closet on the eve of surgery. Then,

Whoa - suddenly it's like something in a science fiction movie: how'd she get here? Just a second ago, she was sitting on the sofa with the cats, eating Chinese. There was television, and the last of the ice cream. Next she knows, she's dressed and sitting in a public place, seeing and being seen. A delicately lit wood-paneled wine bar new in the neighborhood.

This is not the place to be, either. Nor is Nordstrom's. Then comes an agony, parked outside of Martin's building. She resists the impulse to have herself buzzed up by peeling off for a jazz club on the South Side. (Martin's an aficionado.) The club is closed. She calls Martin from a deserted gas station. Martin is at home in bed. Alone?

Meanwhile, through all of these stations of agony, Lynn has drawn a mental sketch of her romance. Early on, she's in control, and the drawing does not look too serious. By the end, it seems that her love life is in worse shape than her breast. Martin will be her friend, he has told her, but the love, and presumably the sex - those are over. He claims that it's because they're different people. "You and I are not right for each other. In the long term, I mean." The long term, of course, includes cancer treatments. Martin will be there for her as a friend, but he is not going to continue to invest erotically in her person. She refuses this gallantry - which is why she's alone tonight.

In the end, she goes to the office and works all night on some new proposals that it will be important for the agency to secure.

She rises off her chair and goes to the window. Just now the sun is coming up, the city dot-matrixing into life again, one dark spot at a time turning into light, brightening the buildings and the streets and distant highways. The stippling reminds her of the giant Seurat painting in the Art Institute, the one Martin liked. Not that Chicago, with its hard charm and gray surfaces - practically still with inactivity at this hour - is anything like Seurat's colorful sprawling picnic. But watching the sky open at her window, it is magnificent, especially after all the work she's put in, and a minor epiphany hits. We've got it all wrong. Normal business hours should be from nine pm to five am so that we're greeted by the sun with work is through. All that was despairing and hopeless the night before has evaporated, and all that talk about the transformative power of the light of day has come true for her. She is strong again, on firm ground again. She has done things as best as she could imagine doing them, and if her imagination is an impoverished one, if it lacks in some fundamental way and the result has been a default to working harder, working longer, her life defaulted into the American dream - hasn't it been a pursuit of happiness all the same? Her pursuit of happiness. And no one, not Martin, not anyone, can take that away from her. It can be taken away only by death. And because of these new business opportunities, death, she's afraid, will have to wait.

This is brave; it has a noble sheen, this acceptance of the facts and rededication to work. But it is not realistic. Lynn, we know, is not realistic, not, that is, outside the office. She has put off dealing with her cancer until it has become quite dangerous. In the event, she will have her surgery the following week, but in the circumstances postponing it for even so much as an hour seems mad. And Lynn is mad highly socialized, highly functional, but nonetheless mad. Although there is barely a whisper of sociology in "The Thing to Do and the Place to Be," it's very clear that Lynn is a victim of some sort of uncompleted feminist project. She is, at the end of the day, not a man (just feel her lump!). She cannot find peace with a man's contentments. And the only way to go is denial.

Ferris has calculated wisely in making Lynn a reasonably sympathetic boss. She is very demanding - very. But she is fundamentally sane. She does not throw fits. She is not passive-aggressive. She understands that her success depends on making the people who work for her want to succeed. And they crave her approbation. Her smile makes their day. Unlike the novel that "one of us" was working on while "we" were all working together, Then We Came to the End is not saddled with an unsympathetic harridan at the top.

The latter part of the novel, "Returns and Departures," returns to the tone of the first section; "We" are back at the center of things, and there we will remain through to the end. But now the narration is on a linear footing. Anecdotes are not related in the free-associative style of "Entering a New Century." In fact, there are no anecdotes (actually, just one) until the very end. Instead, the novel resolves all of the tensions that were stretched out before Lynn Mason's puzzled night alone on the town. Things are tight; three of the five chapters cover just two days. It is the day after the mystifying Wednesday. Lynn wants to see the breast-cancer campaign proposals tomorrow, in order to clear the decks for the serious, paying business that may have come her way. The teams talks Genevieve into talking Joe Pope into confronting Lynn about her cancer. Genevieve is reluctant, but Joe takes forever to agree. As he works out his objections in a conversation with Genevieve, we get to know something about him for the first time - or at any rate, Genevieve does. Confronted by these two, Lynn denies that she has cancer. Then she asks Genevieve to let her talk to Joe alone.

Each of the chapters of Then We Came to the End - except for Lynn's - is prefaced by an old-timey concatenation of scene summaries. Here is the heading for the third chapter of "Returns and Departures":

Ordering Cable - Lynn Forgets - Back to the Fundraiser - Roland Calls Benny - An Indeterminate Fate - Andy Smeejack's Lunch - What's Great About a Silencer - Amber Freaks - Carl Sings - A Question of Courage - Larry's revelation - Carl Gets Weirded Out - A Conversation About Work - The Melee Begins - Chicago's Finest

The assiduous reader will painlessly extract the plot points, so I need not spoil the story any further than I have already done. Tom Mota does indeed revisit the office in semi-"Postal" mode, just as Amber feared he would - but it is only "semi." The episode leads, if not to incarceration, then to a tour of duty in Afghanistan, as well as a jailhouse conversation between Tom and Joe. "Tom and Joe" - what kind of ordinary is somebody named Joshua trying to give us?

The final chapter culminates in a reunion that takes place in 2006. At first, Benny Shassburger, who now works for the last person you'd imagine, can't even remember who Hank is. That memory lapse underscores the fragile contingency of workplace associations, which only rarely lead to real friendships. Amazingly, Joshua Ferris has concentrated upon the superficialities of life in the American office in a way that sounds the depths of their moral shallowness. Excellent novelist that he is, he scrupulously refrains from judgment. Most people have to make a living, and some people are ambitious: ergo, the office. The amicable pretenses that link his characters are not bonds, but they undoubtedly make everyday life less unbearable. It's vital to keep in mind, however, that they are pretenses. Fooling ourselves on this point only adds to the baggage that we'll have to box up on the day when it's our turn to walk Spanish down the hall. (April 2007)

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