Gregory Baird's Reviews > Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
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Jun 08, 08

bookshelves: fiction-literature
Read in December, 2007

“Do you realize how insane we’ve all become?”

In the post-Dilbert world of “The Office,” examinations of the everyday absurdities and indignities of office culture have become more and more commonplace. But rarely are they captured with such acuity, humor and grace as in Joshua Ferris’ stellar debut novel, “Then We Came to the End” (a New York Times top 5 fiction book of 2007). Office ennui is relatively easy to portray because, let’s be honest, anyone who has ever worked in an office has experienced it firsthand. But Ferris goes deeper than that; he does nothing less than capture the zeitgeist of inter-office relations and how it affects us as human beings, smoothly wrapping it all up in a bitterly funny package.

The cubicle-dwellers inhabiting “Then We Came to the End” and its unnamed advertising agency are, by nature, not the stuff of epic fiction. This, as Ferris so aptly puts it, is “a story set in the pages of an Office Depot catalog, of lives not nearly as interesting as an old man and the sea, or watery-world dwellers dispelling the hypos with a maniacal peg-leg.” These are real, everyday people struggling to maintain their humanity in a corporate environment that threatens their individuality, consumes their lives, and is utterly necessary for them to survive. It’s the ultimate love-hate relationship. So when lay-offs come calling, it brings out the best and, more often, the worst in the employees. They are often well-intentioned but mostly petty; they bicker, they tease, they steal, and they casually defame, they gossip, they trick, and they maneuver. But they also support, worry, joke, laugh, love, and try to reform. These are people who are just trying to make it through the daily grind with their dignity intact – and to them the ultimate indignity would be to be escorted out by security with all of their meager possessions in a box while their former co-workers try not to get the stain of association on them.

Ferris captures the complex, wide-ranging spectrum of emotions and attitudes that fester in the workplace. Jealousy, friendship, annoyance, and love – all existing hand in hand and ever-present, even when it seems like they would contradict each other. When a co-worker succeeds, our unnamed narrator remarks that “we were proud, astounded, envious, incredulous, vaguely indifferent, ready to seize on the first hint of mediocrity, and genuinely pleased for him.” That, my friends, is life, Ferris understands it, and he captures it brilliantly.

As an added bonus, “Then We Came to the End” is also wickedly funny. There are inspired hijinks related to rampant chair-swapping and a vindictive office coordinator, a client asks the firm to capture the funny side of cancer in an ad, and our employees – ever advertisers – re-touch the photo of a young girl in a missing poster because they think people will be more likely to respond if she doesn’t look so pale and her smile isn’t so crooked. But there is a deadly serious streak as well. One character is grieving her murdered child, another one deals with illness (and not so well at that), several people are downsized, one employee considers abortion while another struggles with depression, and a burst of violence shocks everyone near the end. But Ferris, a deft writer in only his first outing as a novelist, seamlessly blends the dramatic and the funny without ever losing his wickedly satirical tone.

Characters may come across as callous, which may turn some readers off, while others may wonder what the point of this little exercise is (clearly, they’ve missed it completely), but I for one thoroughly enjoyed this book and have been feverishly recommending it since I finished it yesterday. And I can’t wait to see what the promising Ferris comes up with next.

Grade: A-
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