Not too many authors have written the Great American Office Novel. Joseph Heller did it in Something Happened (the one book of his to rival Catch-22). And Nicholson Baker pulled it off in zanily fastidious fashion in The Mezzanine.
To their ranks should be added Joshua Ferris, whose Then We Came to the End feels like a readymade classic of the genre. Set in a Chicago-based ad agency reeling from the 2000-2001 dot-com crash, it’s a satire narrated by a corporate “we” who are having a hard time coping with impending job loss and the revelation that “employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves.”
Ferris, drawing on his own ad agency experience, neatly skewers the turf battles afflicting his characters, especially when it comes to claims on office furniture. He’s wise to the protocol of meetings and “postmeeting meetings,” and he nails the dynamics of workplace rumor.
“Talk was like the flu,” he writes. “If it started with one, soon it infected all. But unlike the flu, we couldn’t afford to be left out if something was going around.”
The ad campaigns his characters work on range from trying to make “customers feel like heroes when purchasing ... ink cartridges” to selling comfort and hope to cancer patients through “the power of laughter” (an impossible task, for a strangely elusive client).
As for the wild card that keeps the book from being a one-note joke, it’s human experience in forms both sobering (marital breakup, serious illness) and farcical (an office love affair, a bizarre inheritance).
Ferris excels at bringing characters before your eyes with a few artful phrases: “He wore a goatee and was built like a bulldog, stocky, with foreshortened limbs and a rippling succession of necks.” That’s malcontent Tom Mota, soon to be fired.
Just as vivid is the crew’s boss, Lynn Mason, who may or may not be scheduled for breast-cancer surgery. Lynn is “intimidating, mercurial, unapproachable. ... She dressed like a Bloomingdale’s model and ate like a Buddhist monk.”
The more we see of her, the more Lynn becomes an enigma ... until, in Ferris’ most daring move, the book slips out of wisecracking “we” mode and into another realm altogether. This narrative within a narrative is so good that Ferris has trouble regaining focus when he re-enters his main story.
Still, there’s a terrific payoff to the book, which isn’t just a barbed take on its chosen era but a truly affecting novel about work, trust, love and loneliness.