For more than half of a century, the office has defined the American workplace. No longer do we labor at the farms or factories of yore; the harvest has given way to the inter-office conference call, the assembly line to the computer workstation. Yet few authors have embraced the office as a true literary setting – most of the “literature” of the 21st century office has in fact appeared on television or film.
In his debut novel “Then We Came to the End,” young literary phenom Joshua Ferris seeks to right this imbalance. It reads like a 400-page episode of “The Office,” with all the immaturity and futility of the TV sitcom, rendered in brilliant prose that makes the novel a biting satire on par, with the best of “Catch-22” author Joseph Heller.
“Then We Came to the End” is, in fact, something of a “Catch-22” for the creative class, a novel that somehow manages to be laughably apocalyptic in its account of corporate downfall in the high-stakes world of early-2000s advertising.
The protagonist of “Then We Came to the End” is an advertising team – the book is innovatively narrated in the first-person plural “we” – at a downtown Chicago ad agency that rose to prominence in the economic boom years of the 90s. With a new century has come recession, however, and along with it, layoffs and wage freezes.
With the constant specter of downsizing
stalking the office, the members of the team hunker down for the long siege, wondering how many of them will make it through the week. Will it be the mentally disturbed, Emerson-spouting Tom Mota? The irritably likable, totem pole-worshipping Benny Shassburger? Perhaps Marcia Dwyer, the mean-spirited copywriter clinging to her hair band-groupie past? The pathetically bitter Chris Yop, hanging on for days after his termination, or any of the other alarmingly infantile members of the ad team?
As the downward spiral continues, the agency’s commercial work quickly dries up, and the ad team’s leader is stricken with a mysterious illness that may or may not be breast cancer. With all its efforts
directed toward a seemingly impossible
pro bono ad project, the team moves steadily toward “the End,” and its future is all the more uncertain.
Somehow, from the very immaturity of this oddly lovable cast of characters stems a strange pathos, and as the team gradually dissolves – the “we” falling apart – “As We Came to the End” becomes almost poignant. In capturing the most mundane, everyday details of life in the office, Ferris makes his characters come alive; their flaws and imperfections, the chinks in their middle-class armor, render them all the more real.
“Then We Came to the End” may well be the ultimate literary expression of the late 90s, early 2000s “creative class” lifestyle, and Joshua Ferris its greatest poet. But if he is able to turn his eye away from the office and his pen to other topics, Ferris may soon emerge as one of the most promising writers of the new century.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.