Posted by: jowanderer | January 11, 2008

THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris

April 22, 2007

Corporate punishment

THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris

Viking £14.99 pp312

Considering how central it is to American life, work has played a surprisingly marginal role in the country’s fiction. Though the subject is often touched on, few novels have ever focused on it with the sort of all-consuming intensity that such an all-consuming subject seems to merit.

In his outstanding debut, Joshua Ferris concentrates on almost nothing else. Set in a failing Chicago advertising agency during the late 1990s downturn, Then We Came to the End dissects with precision, a fine ironic detachment and the deftest of comic touches, both the unholy terror and the mean, stifling pettiness of life on the white-collar treadmill. In the claustrophobic world of Ferris’s agency, weekends are rarely mentioned, life outside the office barely acknowledged. Instead, the novel’s cynical crew of art directors and down-at-heel copywriters bitch, backbite, carp and complain their way through the day, all the while indulging in “cheap talk to better dramatise our lives”. Occasionally people do some work; mostly, though, as they manoeuvre their way through the minefield of provisional office relationships, they mark time and gossip.

The facelessness of the surroundings — the office is located some 60 floors up a giant skyscraper — is mirrored by the facelessness of the workers, who, in a deliberate ploy by Ferris, seem at first to be almost indistinguishable from each other (the narrator identifies him or herself merely by the word “we”). Gradually, however, without ever being picked out in detail, an array of dysfunctional figures emerge from the corporate fug. There is Jim Jackers, the office nerd and last person to cotton on to anything; Marcia Dwyer, the grungy art director, who never has a kind word for anyone; Tom Mota, bull-necked, edgy and disturbingly prone to cruel acts of office rebellion; Joe Pope, the office senior to whom nobody talks; Carl Garbedian, in the throws of a breakdown and stealing pills from other people to help him cope; Benny Shassburger, everyone’s favourite office friend; and Lynn Mason, the diminutive boss whom everyone fears and everyone knows has cancer. By the end of this hugely satisfying and intelligent novel, each one of these characters, and several more besides, has been winningly fleshed out.

Although Ferris fills his book with a series of elaborate, exceptionally well-executed set pieces, often both funny and starkly cruel, one central question dominates the narrative — the endless, unnerving one of who is next in line for the chop. As the novel progresses, a procession of people to whom the reader has been only half introduced heads down the hall for the exit door (“walking Spanish”, the office workers call it). Sometimes people take their termination well; sometimes (in the case of the unstable Mota) they try throwing their computer out the window. Inevitably, though, the sour smell of their departure wafts back down the hall, infecting those left behind and making them even more callous and nihilistic than they were before.

Despite the humour in which the book is bathed, Then We Came to the End is an angry novel, but it’s not angry in the way one might expect. In choosing corporate culture as his subject, Ferris has given himself an easy target at which to aim, but instead of taking pot shots at the obvious people (he deals with both Pope and the dying Mason, for instance, with particular tenderness), he focuses much of his venom on the pack mentality of those in lesser positions. The implied criticism of how work warps our entire way of living is all the more powerful for it.

If the book has one failing, it is in its occasional (and it is only occasional) flirting with sentimentality. But this is a small price to pay for an incisive, urgent, funny and snappily written novel (the dialogue is especially taut). How such a debut failed to propel Ferris onto the upcoming list of the Granta Best of Young American writers is, frankly, baffling.

Available at the Sunday Times Books First price of £13.49 (inc p&p) on 0870 165 8585 and


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