Then We Came to the End
Novels are usually written as an escape. They are a way to leave the 40-hour work week behind and embark on adventures that no one will ever actually face in real life. But what if the work week is the novel? What happens when the man in the cubicle next to you is an essential part of the plot? Joshua Ferris tackles this question in his debut novel, THEN WE CAME TO THE END. While many of us wile away the hours of an interminable corporate life, Ferris uses this grim reality as a backdrop in which to tell "our story." The words are fiction, but the general idea rings true.
There are several subplots running through this novel. Will Tom come back with a gun to exact revenge on his old co-workers? Will Amber decide to keep married Larry's baby? Will Benny finally profess his love to Marcia now that they both are facing corporate layoffs? And the big question: Does Lynn, the expensive shoe-wearing boss, actually have cancer? At the beginning of the novel it's difficult to keep these numerous subplots straight. The dozen or so characters jump around so quickly that we've forgotten their backstory whenever they're newly introduced. But perhaps in this way we experience the workplace as any new hire would --- filled with the intricate details of a plethora of personal lives that take hours, even days, to sort out and unfold.
Ferris boldly narrates in the second person, using "we" throughout nearly the entire story. In this way, the plot is not just happening to Tom, Amber or Larry --- it's also happening to you and me. We can't tolerate the mundaneness of our jobs. We fear losing them at every turn. We can't stand, yet we can't live without, our fellow co-workers. We marvel at the slowness of the work week and the speed of every subsequent weekend. We are employees during the countrywide layoffs in the beginning of the 21st century, and yet "It was a shrill, carping, frenzied time, and as poisonous an atmosphere as anyone had ever known --- and we wanted nothing more than to stay in it forever."
Ferris has a section in the middle of his novel that differs from the pages that precede and follow it. The point of view is third person instead of second, and the plot focuses on only one character --- the expensive shoe-wearing boss who does or does not have cancer. This 40-page section is the real gem of the novel; Ferris steps into the mind of a near-middle-aged woman on the biggest night of her life, as she tries to make meaning out of a purely unfortunate event. The rest of THEN WE CAME TO THE END has comedy with a dash of tragedy, but this portion has the opposite. On this night, Lynn becomes one of the most gut-wrenchingly human characters ever to be placed on the page. It is here that UC Irvine confirms its status as presumably the topmost MFA creative writing program in the country. Ferris represents his alma mater well, and the rest of us must bow in awe before him.
Office life has been discussed on the big screen in such movies as Office Space and has entertained us in such sitcoms as "The Office." In THEN WE CAME TO THE END, we are provided with an equally funny ink-and-paper equivalent. This book will make you laugh, philosophize and sympathize. You will close it having made a dozen new friends, all of whom remind you vaguely of someone you know --- maybe even that quirky employee in the cubicle next to you.
Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on January 23, 2011
Then We Came to the End
- Publication Date: February 26, 2008
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 031601639X
- ISBN-13: 9780316016391