The narrative trademark — or gimmick — of Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, is contained in the title: the book is told in the first person plural, which gives this story of Chicago office workers its initial powerful, even oracular, thrust. ‘We were fractious and overpaid,’ the book begins. ‘Our mornings lacked promise.’ Soon comes a key sentence: ‘Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything.’ While the book’s ambition is to capture something of the American turn-of-the-century frenzy, in society and in commerce, essentially it’s about those dozen people and how they get on with each other and still, sort of, hang on to their advertising jobs while there’s always the strong risk of losing them now that the downturn is here; for sure as Monday comes another person will be fired, or, as it is in this particular office discourse, forced to ‘walk Spanish’.
Relying on ‘we’ and ‘our’, the novel has the effect of continued pronouncements or judgment that skip straight from the mundane to the profound, encompassing us all. A co-worker is sick but comes to work: ‘She needed to get her priorities straight, we thought. But then none of us ever had our priorities straight.’ They enjoy telling stories, but better get on with it: ‘We liked wasting time, but almost nothing was more annoying than having our wasted time wasted on something not worth wasting it on.’ Whichever way we turn, we are implicated, creating a suitable vertigo for the story-line on the daily effort to avoid the sack. But the endless chitchat will dry at least some of us out.
Ferris’s novel could not have been written without the seminal influence, on American fiction, of Jonathan Franzen’s bestseller from nearly six years ago, The Corrections. That long book’s bedazzling comedy and vigour, of an urban middle-class steeped in pop culture and too-easy riffing with language, neurotic joking and ramped-up ambition and psychological fallout, is translated from Franzen’s Great Midwestern Family to Ferris’s Great Midwestern Office, and whichever version of The Office we’ve seen on television (American or British) we recognise this milieu too. These people are too bright and self-aware for their work (unless they are the reverse: impossibly dim and lacking inner life); they know they should be doing something else but are resigned to never learning what it is, let alone attaining it. ‘We had the great good fortune and shortcomings of character that marked every generation that had never seen war’ is how Ferris (b. 1974) explains his characters’ dissatisfaction and lack of drive, but like other such moments it’s an easy capitulation, not the expression of the writer’s moral vision.
The novel has the admirable aspect of actually having people, in a novel about work, work: thinking about their duties, trying to get something done, working on their own or in meetings. The sitcom version would be all bullshit, small talk and escapades. Within Then We Came to the End one pegs those qualities at, maybe, only 60 per cent. The careful balance is ruined by the end, where finally the sitcom smashes through in what is called, since the movie Animal House, the where-are-they-now gambit. Here it just seems lazy and too nervously interested in keeping the reader — call him the viewer now — happy and sedated, just as the inevitable anti-depressant pills kick in.