Mark's Reviews > Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
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Jun 21, 08

bookshelves: fiction
Read in June, 2008


The first thing to say about this book is that no matter what else I think about the plot, the themes, the point of view, or any other aspect of this novel, it was compulsively readable, which in itself is a mark of how fine a talent Joshua Ferris is.

In some ways, he is plowing the same ground as Douglas Coupland and Dilbert, but without the manic surrealism of the one or the cartoonish brevity of the other. Virtually the entire plot of "Then We Came to the End" takes place in a few floors of a high-rise Chicago office building, home to an advertising and marketing agency. The characters are the copywriters and artists who occupy the cubicles and their bosses, and the obsession of the book is the relationships they have with each other and with their work.

The entire arc of the novel is set against a decline in their business and the drumbeat of layoffs, so that as the book moves along, one after another of the crew exits the building, usually clutching one pathetic box of "useless shit", as the unnamed narrator puts it.

At first, I feared the entire book would be about the personal relationships and habits and put-downs and shifting allegiances of the workers, without any actual discussion of what they did for a living, but in fact some of their advertising work does find its way into the story.

In particular, a shifting set of pro bono campaigns for breast cancer becomes one of their momentary obsessions, and they seem to trace directly back to the much feared and admired boss, who herself has received the diagnosis, but who is more than a little ambivalent about going through with her treatment for it.

The central kernel of the novel concerns her personal journey through the diagnosis and her relationship with a lawyer who she hopes will see her through it, and that one short story within a story almost felt to me as though it was the original writing that Ferris did, and that he then decided to build the rest of his book around it. It has a vulnerability and power that the rest of the book lacks, despite its entertaining tales of everything from the copywriter who was bequeathed an Indian totem pole to the manic employee who may or may not be planning to pull a Columbine on the office after he's laid off.

"When We Came to the End" wants to be a philosophical reflection on the meaninglessness of consumer culture and the art of promoting it, on the ways in which work we don't enjoy or respect consumes our lives anyway, of the myriad ways that the social network of an office triumphs over its actual mission. It isn't quite profound enough for all that, I fear, but the strong storytelling, the vivid characters, and the saving grace of that one cancer story give it enough power to make it a winner.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Matt I gave this a thumbs down and still feel that way, but have been explained by other people why this is good. It will be interesting to read your opinion.
-Matt


Mark Let's call them interconnected short stories :)


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