Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End
I’m not going to tell you that Ferris’ novel is about work, or the economic downturn, or layoffs, because then you wouldn’t read it, and if you could only do one good thing for the rest of the year, reading this book would not be a bad way to go.
Ferris’ mastery of voice is astounding. He begins the novel in a whimsical, often hilarious first-person plural, the voice of the working masses at an advertising company. “We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning.” This goes on for pages and pages, and I thought there was no way that Ferris could sustain that point of view with any sort of conviction. I thought for sure he would run out of steam, much like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (which is what And Then We Came to the End reminded me of at first) seems to do after a while.
But he doesn’t. The “we” fades a bit into the background as the characters become more fleshed out, and we climb inside their skulls from time to time, but the reader continuously feels like she is standing in a group of these people, peering over a cubicle wall or gathered in someone’s office, watching the events unfold. It’s marvelously effective. Ferris’ characterization, too, is a work of art in itself.
Then there’s the chapter called The Thing to Do and the Place to Be, almost exactly in the center. It’s unlike any other section of the book, and Ferris himself called it the novel’s emotional heart. He says, “Without it Then We Came to the End would have been only an elaborate, if amusing, game.” Incredibly amusing, I would say. But when you hit the depths he plumbs in The Thing to Do, you understand how high the stakes are, and that this is not, by any means, a game.
I love this book. I love to see authors try new things and expand my understanding of the form, whether it be short fiction or a novel, and I think Ferris has done that. I wouldn’t call it avante garde, but it’s certainly fresh and unique in voice and form, and it’s a delight to read. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites passages:
There was so much unpleasantness in the workday world. The last thing you ever wanted to do at night was go home and do the dishes. And just the idea that part of the weekend had to be dedicated to getting the oil changed and doing the laundry was enough to make those of us still full from lunch want to lie down in the hallway and force anyone dumb enough to remain committed to walk around us. It might not be so bad. They could drop food down to us, or if that was not possible, crumbs from their PowerBars and bags of microwave popcorn would surely end up within an arm’s length sooner or later. The cleaning crews, needing to vacuum, would inevitably turn us on our sides, preventing bedsores, and we could make little toys out of runs in the carpet, which, in moments of extreme regression, we might suck on for comfort.
But enough daydreaming. Our desks were waiting, we had work to do. And work was everything. We liked to think it was family, it was God, it was following football on Sundays, it was shopping with the girls or a strong drink on Saturday night, that it was love, that it was sex, that it was keeping our eye on retirement. But at two in the afternoon with bills to pay and layoffs hovering over us, it was all about the work.
Postscript: If you were planning to see the Revolutionary Road flick, in which Leo and Kate are reunited at long last, don’t. Read the book instead. It may change your life. The movie will just make you depressed.