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A Review of "Then We Came to the End"

I'm going to cop out on this a little bit and use the Good Reads average of 3.5 / 5 as my rating for Then We Came to the End, the debut novel from Joshua Ferris.  If I had to pick my own rating, I think I'd just waffle a lot and fall flat on my face.

My reaction to it is a lot like how I felt after reading The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska.  I'm ambivalent.  On the one hand, the style is fantastic.  Ferris is a great writer and milks a lot of good laughing-on-the-inside chuckles out of mundane situations.  On the other hand, it's a bit slow; the first third is sometimes a slog, and it doesn't really start to get into the most gripping subject matter until about halfway through.

TWCttE is a series of incidents and misadventures in a Chicago advertising firm during a late nineties economic downturn.  (Ironically, it was published in 2007, just as the Great Recession was starting, so you'll be forgiven for thinking it takes place more recently if you pick it up now.)  I hesitate to call it a "story" or even a "character study" because it's not really either of those things - it's literally just a series of incidents.

That's not a bad thing.  Some of them are amusing, some painful, some wistful.  It ends up being an ensemble novel about a whole bunch of folks whom you both love and hate.  There's no main character, no real plot, and only a modicum of character growth.  Ultimately it's a thematic exploration of identity, particularly as it pertains to your work.

Which leads me to the big elephant in the room.  You can't really talk about this book without mentioning the format and voice.  Ferris wrote it as a sort of stream-of-consciousness series of anecdotes in first person plural tense.  I'm pretty sure the intent was to drive home the idea of group identity; nobody has a singular voice because they are part of The Office, and that's a rock to which they can hook their lives.  Ferris uses this to weave together the complex feelings you might have toward that kind of identity - it can be both soul-crushing and intimately life-affirming, and when you leave the group, you can feel both liberated and depressed at the same time.

I have to be honest: the format didn't work for me.

Much of the book explores how that sort of group identity can be hollow or superficial, particularly as the employees start to get fired and disappear.  There's also a really great sequence involving the office manager, Lynn, as she struggles with her diagnosis of breast cancer and realizes that she doesn't really do anything else with her life besides work.  She ultimately concludes that she's happy to be in that position because she loves her work so much.

Fine, but it's not the job that defines her - it's the talent she gets to utilize while there.  If Lynn is that excited about project management, then she would be an exceptional Project Manager anywhere.  It's not the office that defines her - it's still her.  She has the talent and drive.

It's kind of like how you might have that coworker who's really excited about baking, so they're always bringing in cookies or muffins or whatever.  That's their thing.  It's part of their identity as much as The Office is part of their identity.

The tense feels like a cheat. You can't just wash all of that complexity away by referring to them as "we" and moving on.  But maybe I'm looking at it the wrong way.  Maybe the intent of the format/voice is to emphasize that exact sort of conflict.  If so, I still think it was a misstep - I won't go so far as to say that it was distracting (the book is an easy read), but it feels like the kind of thing you'll remember in place of something that Ferris actually wanted you to remember.  It's like writing a brilliant poem in blood; it doesn't matter how beautiful your metaphor is, the only thing people are going to talk about is that you wrote it in blood, you maniac.

The whole identity / work theme is an interesting one to think about because of my own book.  TWCttE was (maybe still is?) a bestseller that made it's way onto my "to read" list while I was writing the first draft of I Need a Job.  The biggest point I wanted to make in INaJ is that it's incredibly shallow and short-sighted to wholly hook your life into something as fleeting and mechanical as a job, no matter how important it might be to pay your bills. TWCttE is almost the polar opposite.  It makes a lot of the same points, but it does so by having its characters gradually lose their jobs rather than try to seek one out.

Now, stay with me here, because the rest of this might sound extreeeeeemely arrogant, but I'm trying to be sincere.  (I feel like I need to put a disclaimer anytime I start talking about my own work in the context of somebody else's.)

When I think about the differences between my generation and the ones before it, I often think about it in terms of collectivism versus individualism, globalization versus protectionism, progressivism versus conservatism, and all the other isms.  But you know, that might all be bullshit.  The truth might simply be the difference between the characters in TWCttE and INaJ.

The last couple of generations before my own expected they were going to get a job when they got out of school, and they knew they'd work hard and make some money and live a life.  Maybe they weren't so cocksure they'd be rich, but they knew that was the process and they planned for it.  You get a job and that's what you do because you're an American and Americans go to work.

I have never once in my life had that feeling.  I have literally never gone to bed thinking I will wake up assured of stability.  Every single day of my post-school life has been a dance on a razor's edge where I've thought, "Is this the day it ends?"  And it's not just the Great Recession that led me here - I've been in and out of jobs since 2000 and living alone since 2005.  Even during the supposed "boom" of the early '00s, the job market was paltry and merciless.  It took me months just to get a job in retail.  And even after elbowing a thousand other jobseekers to get whatever position I had, there has never, not once, ever been any promise that that job would last. Job security is, as far as I've ever known, a myth on the level of Atlantis and Santa Claus.

There's no chance in hell I'm going to hitch my identity onto the company I work for when I don't even know that they'll keep me around until the end of the week.  And that's not a slam against the company I work with; I like my job and my office, and I'm pretty good at what I do.  I'm just realistic.  I've been fired before from jobs I liked and was good at.  Several times.  That's just what life is like.

Older Americans who've had any kind of stability or confidence have a totally skewed attitude toward us.  It's easy for them to sneer at kids for pursuing their "silly" interests (be they stupid blogs like this one or designer shopping bags on Etsy), but those silly interests are the only things my generation can count on.  I know that no matter what happens with my job, tomorrow I'll still be a writer.  That's my anchor.

We're not self-obsessed - we're just trying to be self-reliant, the same as you.  We simply have different understandings of what you can rely on.

Joshua Ferris isn't much older than me - only about ten years.  But that makes him just old enough to have worked at a time when you were your work.  The last third of his book is by far the most impactful for me because that's when the shift in attitudes becomes clear.  His characters start new jobs with younger assholes like me, and they wonder, "Why aren't these kids as excited about being part of The Office as we are?"

It's because of that final third that I would recommend this book.  It gets better as it goes on and captures a pretty good image of the American workplace at a very specific time, and for that reason, it deserves to be on your bookshelf.  (While you're at it... buy mine, too.  Yeah, yeah, shameless plug and all, but I honestly think it would be an interesting follow-up.)