Thursday, August 25, 2016

Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris (2007)

I first heard about Then We Came to the End when it came out back in 2007.  I was taking a writing class at the time at StoryStudio Chicago and one of my classmates mentioned it.  I remember nothing substantive about the comment, but my guess is that it had something to do with its narrative voice.  The first thing that most people hear about this book is that it is written in the first-person plural (i.e. "We" rather than "I").  The second thing most people hear about this book is that it is about life at an ad agency during a period of layoffs.  It is about office life. Because of its "experimental" narrative voice, it reminded me of Bright Lights, Big City, which was written in the second-person. Both are very good books, but I actually liked this one slightly better.  I'm flirting with whether to add it to the "best books reviewed on Flying Houses" list.

I will say this about one of the characters.  You know how sometimes, when you forget your password for something on the internet, they ask you a secret question to confirm your identity?  Sometimes that question is, "who is your favorite fictional character" and I never have a good answer.  Well, this book gave me a good answer, for once.  I mean, anybody can say Holden Caulfield, anybody can.  That's easy to guess.  But now I have a good answer: Tom Mota.  And I'm probably really screwing that up by writing about it, but so be it.  Tom Mota is a great character; he's sort of everything I wish I could be in a professional setting--but that would never be acceptable.  He's a kind of fantasy character.  Take, for example, the epic e-mails he writes addressed to everyone in their office:

"The subject line read, 'I Consign You and Your Golf Shoes to Lower Wacker Driver.' 'The tomatoes in my garden are not coming out,' he continued.  'Maybe because I only have the weekend to work the garden, or maybe because the garden keeps getting mowed over by the goddamn Hispanics who tend to the grounds of the apartment complex I've been living in since the state forced me to tell my house in Naperville and Barbara took the kids to Phoenix to live with Pilot Bob.  Do I have an actual garden?  The answer is a big fat no, because the goddamn woman in the property office won't listen to reason.  She keeps insisting that this is a rental property, not your backyard.  Flower borders, that's all we want, she says.  So the goddamn Hispanics go out and tend the marigolds along the borders.  But do you understand, I'm talking about fat, ripe, juicy, delicious red tomatoes that I want to grow with my own two hands through the bountiful mystery and generosity of nature!  That dream ended when Barb started sleeping with Pilot Bob and we gave up Naperville.  Anyway, would I like a garden?  YES.  Matter of fact I would like a farm.  But at the present moment I'm afraid all I have is apartment 4H at Bell Harbor Manor, which is neither a harbor nor a manor and contains NOT ONE SINGLE BELL.  Which one of you wizards came up with the name 'Bell Harbor Manor'?  May your clever tongues be ripped from their cushy red linings and left to dry on pikes under the native sun of the cannibal land.  Ha!  I will be called into the office for that one but I'm leaving it, because what I'm trying to get at here is that I'M NOT SURE ANY OF US KNOWS just how far we have removed ourselves not only from nature but from the natural conditions of life that have prevailed for centuries and have forced men to the extreme limits of their physical capacity in order simply to feed, clothe and otherwise provide for their families, sending them every night to a sweet, exhausted, restorative, unstirred, deserved sleep such as we will never know again..." (37-38)

That's only about half of the e-mail but I don't want to break the record for the longest excerpt on the blog.

There is no main character in this book, but a few hold center stage more often than others: Lynn Mason, Benny Shassburger, Joe Pope, Carl Garbedian, Marcia Dwyer, Karen Woo, Janine Gorjanc, Old Brizz, Jim Jackers and Chris Yop, Amber Ludwig, Larry Novotnoy, Hank Neary, and Don Blattner, apart from Tom Mota.  The plot is basically the drama of their lives.  Lynn Mason is basically the boss of all the other employees and may or may not have breast cancer.  There is an interlude in between the two "parts" of the novel ("Enter a New Century" and "Returns and Departures") called "The Thing to Do and the Place to Be" which breaks out of the first person plural voice and focuses directly on her, so she feels more significant.  Joshua Ferris, in an interview excerpted in my edition of the novel, also refers to this section as the emotional core of the novel, and the part that takes it beyond a basic farce.

This novel is very, very funny.  The words fly off the page and I was pretty much "into it" from page one.  While it was very engaging, it tended to lose me for just a little while, towards the end of the second book, where something sort of faux-dramatic happens.  That's probably the only reason I won't add it to the "best books" list--and it probably deserves it anyways.  Because I would have rolled my eyes at the faux-dramatic scene if it had just been dramatic instead.  Instead, it's sort of funny and lighthearted.

In terms of the other characters, Benny Shassburger receives a strange bequest from Old Brizz and has a crush on Marcia.  Joe Pope is effectively second-in-command and everybody resents him, except for Genevieve who is basically the most attractive person in the office.  Carl Garbedian starts acting strangely and has issues with his wife Marilynn, who is a very understanding doctor.  He starts taking medication prescribed for Janine Gorjanc, whose young daughter was abducted and strangled, who then got divorced and has a somewhat bizarre grieving ritual uncovered by Karen Woo, who is basically the biggest "gossip" in the office--though really this whole book is basically gossiping.  Jim Jackers is sort of pegged as an idiot and has a great uncle that comes up with brilliant marketing campaigns for him.  Chris Yop has a sort of ridiculous situation develop with the office chair that he has taken from another employee that was laid off.  Larry Novotnoy has an affair with Amber Ludwig and gets her pregnant and keeps hoping she'll get an abortion.  Hank Neary and Don Blattner are both writers, the former of failed novels and the latter of failed screenplays.

In short, the plot of this novel is very episodic, and exists primarily in the stories that the co-workers tell about one another.  It's almost like a collection of short stories.  It reminded me a lot of a children's book I read, Sideways Stories from Wayside School.  That was one of my favorite books ever growing up (as was its sequel, Wayside School is Falling Down), so maybe you can see why I liked this.  Those stories were a little ridiculous, but I could identify with them because I was in school too.  Now the stories in this novel are also a little ridiculous, but I could identify with them because I work in an office too.  In the interview after the book, Ferris does admit that the office of an ad agency is able to "get away" with more ridiculous behavior than would fly at say, a law firm, so maybe that accounts for some of the more unbelievable aspects.

Mainly I liked this book for the idiosyncratic reasons that I usually like books: while sexual confusion and substance abuse are not major (or even minor) themes in this novel, suicidal depression certainly comes up a few times, so I can dig it:

"We fought with depression.  One thing or another in our lives hadn't worked out, and for a long period of time we struggled to overcome it.  We took showers sitting down and couldn't get out of bed on weekends.  Finally we consulted HR about the details of seeing a specialist, and the specialist prescribed medication.  Marcia Dwyer was on Prozac.  Jim Jackers was on Zoloft and something else.  Dozens of others took pills all day long, which we struggled to identify, there were so many of them, in so many different colors and sizes....
Yet for all the depression no one ever quit.  When someone quit, we couldn't believe it.  'I'm becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,' they said.  'I'm touring college towns with my garage band.' We were dumbfounded.  It was like they lived on a different planet.  Where had they found the derring-do?  What would they do about car payments?  We got together for going-away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately."  (56-57)

A couple other things worth mentioning: this is a great Chicago novel.  There are not many novels about modern day Chicago.  Most are about New York.  There is a sequence in the "interlude" where Lynn Mason's sometime-boyfriend Martin blindfolds her and takes her on a Ferris Bueller-esque series of adventures around the city, quintessential Chicago things.  I found it a little bit cliche, but what can you do?  It was still a sort of sweet scene.  The book takes place in 2000 and 2001 and Potbelly gets referenced once or twice, back before it expanded around the country.  There are spot-on references to outlying suburbs like Palatine and Schaumburg and neighborhoods like Bridgeport and traffic routes like the I-88.  So basically this book might make you feel like your existence is worthy of being the stuff of literature if you live in Chicago rather than New York.

Another thing: this book was timely.  It came out in 2007, in eerie anticipation of the recession to come, what with all of the material about layoffs.  It's not about the same kind of market forces that fueled that decline, but it's a portrait of a more innocent time in our history, when "the game" didn't feel as "rigged."

This is turning out to be kind of a short review.  I thought I'd have all the time in the world to write it because I'm on my first "vacation" in nearly 10 years, but I digress.  If it's not already clear, I really, really liked this book, and I highly recommend it.  I am definitely interested in reading Ferris's follow-up novels and will hopefully get around to reviewing them in the not too distant future.

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