Then We Came to the End

In this age of chick lit, Da Vinci Code-esque thrillers and books about wizards, it can be difficult to find a piece of good, solid fiction.

In this age of chick lit, Da Vinci Code-esque thrillers and books about wizards, it can be difficult to find a piece of good, solid fiction. Last month’s new release Then We Came to the End, a novel by Joshua Ferris, may remedy the I-can’t-find-anything-to-read blues.

The book is about a group of people working at a Chicago ad agency. They aren’t exactly saving the world, but you couldn’t call them nine-to-five drones either. They’re like real people. One is pregnant, one is always “working” on a screenplay, one may or may not have cancer, and all of them are up for a little gossip from time to time…or all the time.

The company seems to be going under and layoffs are imminent from page one. With no clients to serve at the moment, the characters pass their time via numerous coffee breaks. And priority for many is snagging the best furniture left behind by employees who have been let go. Between looking busy and the end of each workday, we get to know the characters by the stories they tell.

Ferris, a first-time novelist, captures the anxiety of a declining job market, with a “who’s next?” kind of paranoia. But at the same time he creates characters that share subtle bonds that are divulged more and more throughout the book. What’s more, he’s got one hell of a sense of humor. His writing is honest and funny.

One of the most strikingly unusual aspects of the novel is that the narration is done in first-person plural. It begins with the “we” in the title. It’s not something you see often and it’s not easy to pull off, but Ferris’ execution seems effortless and it makes the novel what it is. It’s a story about the whole office, not just one someone. The decision to use the first-person rather than a third-person narration, to use pronouns like “we” and “us,” rather than “they” and “them,” gives the novel a personal quality that makes each character, no matter how outlandish or pathetic, seem human–like someone you might actually know.

Ferris’ style is unique not just through narration, but structure as well. When one of the characters tells a story, the reader learns about the other characters from that story, but also by the way they listen (by interrupting or contributing) and the way they react. The whole gossip component of the book (which is much less high school than it sounds) creates an interesting method of character development. It gives the book a lot of layers, a lot of depth.

You may feel by now that the whole office-life scenario has been done. Try as one may to compare Then We Came to the End to television’s The Office (either version) or film’s Office Space, Ferris’ work breaches the topics of cubicles and break rooms in a way only a novel could. In that respect, it’s completely original. The characters are bizarre and tragic, but still believable.

Though I’d consider it the best thing I’ve read all year, it’s only April and the book is not without fault. Sometimes Ferris pushes his circular method of storytelling too far. It’s especially tricky in the beginning of the book to remember which anecdotes go with which characters. A quarter of the way into the novel the storyline begins to appear and from there the story takes a slightly more chronological path. Halfway through, and you’ll start to remember who is who. No longer will you find yourself flipping back pages to find out which person is with child, which one is mourning and which one scares the hell out of everybody else.

Then We Came to the End is not simply an ode to the working person or homage to a life in corporate hell. It’s better than that, and much less contrived. You could use buzzwords to describe it, like “refreshing” and “original,” but I just call it good.