Sunday, September 30, 2007

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

There are books that create entire genres in their wake. And I don't even mean the obvious ones, the Lord of the Ringses and The Firms -- a huge swath of late 20th century American lit would be vastly different, or missing entirely, without On the Road or The Catcher in the Rye. Another book that's been dragging young writers into its orbit for fifty years, like some literary black hole, is Catch-22. Almost every writer trying to describe an organization gets sucked up by Catch-22's gravitational pull, and some don't even try to break free.

I've written about Po Bronson's Bombadiers before, which I still think is as close to a "Catch-22 for business" as the world will ever come. But Joshua Ferris's first novel Then We Came To the End works similar territory for different ends, and is exceptionally successful along the way. While Bronson grabbed onto Heller's descriptions of combat and extreme personalities, Ferris is more interested in the structure of Catch-22 (or lack thereof), though he has his own cast of impressive oddballs.

Ferris's novel is set in an advertising agency in Chicago around 2000-2001; the memories of the flush times are still around, but belt-tightening and random layoffs are now painfully common. There's no main character; the book is narrated in the first person plural, as if by the gestalt of the worker bees. All of the staff reporting to agency partner Lynn Mason narrate this book, and none of them. Some of them get fired and all of them fear it; some of them have personal or work crises and some don't -- but all of them together tell the story, as if they're falling over each other to explain how it was, back in the good old days, when they all worked together.

Ferris manipulates the time-line of the novel by telling it piecemeal, backing and filling, jumping from one story to the next, and then doubling back. It's surprisingly effective, mimicking a long lunch conversation to say good-bye to a colleague or a water-cooler symposium late on a Friday afternoon. Then We Came To the End reads like people actually talking about the place they work -- chatting with each other, sharing private jokes, maneuvering for status and complaining about each other. I've worked with copywriters and art directors -- hell, I've worked in offices with people, which is what counts -- and this novel rings true.

And the characters -- from crazy Tom Mota to quiet golden boy Joe Pope -- are just as real. I might not have worked with people precisely like Karen Woo, Chris Yop, or Benny Shassburger, but I know their types, and I'm probably more like one or more of the people in this novel than I'd like to think.

The plot of Then We Came To the End can't be described; there is something like a linear plot, of a kind, in there, but you need to read the whole book to get it all. And it's not a huge plot, anyway -- these are a couple of people working at an ad agency. (To take very disaparate comparison books, that's what Catch-22 does right and Max Barry's Company does wrong -- the former is "about" WWII, the biggest war in memory, but concentrates on the petty actions of a few people, and the latter is about some company in Seattle, but blows that out of proportion.) Does Tom Mota go crazy? Does Benny Shassburger keep his job? Does Lynn Mason really have cancer? Those are important questions, and they are answered, but they're not what drives the book.

Then We Came To the End is like walking into a new job for the first time and going out to a long lunch with your new co-workers. You sit quietly as they spread old gossip, rehash old quarrels, and half-tell old jokes. The stories start out huge and complicated, but quickly turn familiar, funny, and fascinating. By the time you're done, you think: I've worked with these people before. I've known these people all my life. And then you go back to work.

If you work in an office, you'll probably want to read this.

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