Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

2007. Little, Brown and Co. Hardcover. 385 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In plural first-person, the office workers of a Chicago advertising firm describe the dramas that occur as they face impending layoffs.

Review:

I was intrigued by Then We Came to the End mostly because it was a novel about office work. It seems so many fictional characters that I read about have either a career in creative arts of some kind or are in the legal, law enforcement and medical fields. (Characters in education also make a strong showing.) Where are the characters in the kind of boring jobs?

Well, some of them are here in Then We Came to the End. Especially at the beginning of the book, the narration is wonderful at hilarious spot-on takes at office life:

How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space.

p. 7

Of course, it would not be sustainable if the entire 385 pages of this book consisted of these generalizations about office life, as funny as they may be. So as the book progresses, it starts crystallizing into the story of its specific characters.

There is Benny Shassburger, the guy who seems to know what’s going on with everybody. Hank Neary likes to quote from literature, annoying everyone. Carl Garbedian suffers from depression. Janine Gorjanc’s young daughter was murdered and her co-workers are unsure of how to deal with it. Similarly, when they hear rumors that their boss, Lynn Mason, has been diagnosed with cancer, they are similarly at a loss. Tom Mota – one of the first to be laid off – is a little scary to his co-workers, philosophical and reactionary. Joe Pope, one of my favorite characters, seems to do everything with integrity which alienates him from the rest of his co-workers but also results in his promotion.

This is not a traditionally told story. Not only is it in plural first-person, but while the book is roughly chronological, there is a lot of jumping around. Near the beginning, it talks about Tom Mota’s layoff but then later includes a number of stories from before his layoff. A character will start telling a story about a co-worker and Ferris will interrupt the story for a side-story and then later return to the main story. I didn’t find it too confusing because I knew it wasn’t important to the reading experience to figure out what exactly happened when.

I enjoyed reading Then We Came to the End. It reminds me a bit of The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, which both have a cast of characters who are connected by work, and in both books, their employers are losing business.

Then We Came to the End made me laugh with its observations of office life. The antics and tribulations of its characters kept me interested throughout, even if their egregious pettiness and sometimes very bizarre actions made them forever characters, and not quite people. I’m not sure how much I’ll remember of Then We Came to the End as time passes, but I’m glad I picked it up.

Other reviews:

Asylum – “It strains toward significance in touching on issues like obsession and grief, and aims for something slightly epic with a long time break toward the end, but it never really tickles the heart or makes the reader jump or start.”

Buried in Print“Then We Came to the End is not always a comfortable read. Not only are some of the characters incredibly irritating,but there are moments of great sorrow alongside the moments of incredible hilarity. And of course the mere idea of a collective like this won’t work for all readers.”

Shelf Life – “While not laugh-out-loud funny, it is sly and smart and a spot-on look at human nature, and there is more here than first meets the eye.”

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7 Comments

Filed under Book Review

7 responses to “Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

  1. I have The Imperfectionists on my list too: looking forward to it. (The more I think about Ferris’ first novel, the more I admire it: thanks for linking to my response to it!)

  2. Nice review, Christy! I rarely read stories set in an office, but this one looks quite interesting. I will look for this book at my library. The lines you have quoted from Asylum’s review are rhyming and poetical. Have you seen the movie ‘Up in the Air’?

  3. I didn’t love this book when I first read it, but a lot of its observations have stuck with me over time. Like I loved it that they talked about at one point how everyone thanked each other all the time. That is SO TRUE of office life. I say thank you fifty times a day at my job.

  4. Nice review! I agree with the comparison to The Imperfectionists. I also thought Domestic Violets was pretty similar too, in the sarcastic take on work life. I also liked the way this one jumped around with the stories, it reminded me of how conversations often go.

  5. BuriedInPrint – yeah, I’ll have to see if it also grows in my estimation after some time has passed. It’s hard to know what will stick.

    Vishy – I hadn’t noticed that about the quote I picked from Asylum’s page. I have seen “Up in the Air” and liked it.

    Jenny – yes, I think the parts that jived with my own office experience will come back to me. At one point, they say that there was “only one damn electric pencil sharpener” in the whole place, and that is exactly true about my office too! And yes, the thank you part is also on target.

    Kim – Yes, the jumping around seemed to be mimicking the way a group of people might recall a story to each other – we get sidetracked, we have to keep resituating ourselves chronology (e.g. “that was before that office moved, but after so and so started working here, I think.) And since a lot of the book circled around the gossip storytelling in the office, it made sense to me.

  6. A lot of people don’t like this book–I don’t think anyone in my real world life liked it–but I loved this book. I think it has one of the best opening lines in all of literature: “We were fractious and overpaid.”

    • It is a fantastic first line – I remember before I read this book, that another review remarked upon it. I think the ‘fractious’ is the lynchpin of that sentence. Great word, nicely used.

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