It is a brave author who embeds the rationale for writing his novel into the
novel itself. But 70 pages into Joshua Ferris’s first novel, set in a
white-collar office, we meet Hank Neary, an advertising copywriter writing his
first novel, set in a white-collar office. Ferris has the good sense to make
Neary’s earnest project seem slightly ridiculous. Neary describes his book as
“small and angry.” His co-workers tactfully suggest more appealing topics. He
rejects them. “The fact that we spend most of our lives at work, that interests
me,” he says. “A small, angry book about work,” his colleagues think. “There was
a fun read on the beach.”“Then We Came to the End,” it turns out, is neither small nor angry, but
expansive, great-hearted and acidly funny. It is set at the turn of the current
century, when the implosion of the dot-com economy is claiming collateral
victims down the fluorescent-paneled halls of a Chicago advertising firm.
Clients are fleeing, projects are drying up and management is chucking human
ballast from the listing corporate balloon. The layoffs come piecemeal, without
warning and — in keeping with good, brutal, heinie-covering legal practice —
with no rationale as to why any person was let go.
In the midst of this crisis, the agency receives a pro bono assignment from a
mysterious client, a breast-cancer awareness group with no detectable presence
on the Internet or elsewhere. The request is cruelly difficult: an ad that will
make breast-cancer sufferers laugh about their disease. (The assignment becomes
more fraught, and suspicious, when a rumor begins to circulate that Lynn Mason,
the employees’ reserved, arch supervisor, has breast cancer herself.) The staff
members bitch about the campaign and mock it — and above all, work on it
desperately, in hope of being the one to knock it out of the park.
“We all had
the same prayer: please let it be me.”Like the paper-pushers of the British and American versions of “The Office,”
Ferris’s admen amuse themselves with tiny, absurd rebellions. A garrulous sad
sack named Benny Shassburger decides to spend a day speaking in nothing but
quotes from “The Godfather,” on the theory that either no one will notice or
they will be too polite to say so. When an associate asks for advice on a
project, he replies, “This one time I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.”
“Cool,” his co-worker answers.Ferris’s novel is not the satire you might expect. From “The Man in the Gray
Flannel Suit” to “Dilbert,” the default position for American stories about
business — especially as easy a target as advertising — has been derision.
White-collar work is meant to be soul-killing and pernicious. It can be all
those things, of course, and Ferris funnels that point of view through Tom Mota,
a bitter, divorced desk jockey fond of guns, Emerson and e-mailing eloquent,
profane and multiply cc’ed treatises on how sedentary office life goes against
man’s nature. (Here again, Ferris is smart enough to put his most persuasive
rants in the mouth of a character who may well be dangerously crazy.)GET THIS BOOK FREE.BUY SELL RENT BOOKS FROM THE LINK BELOW.