Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
For a workplace fiction novel about cubicle dwellers at an advertising and marketing agency, Then We Came to the End is a surprisingly gratifying and self-aware read, with much to say about the world of middle management in the mid-2000s. Taking in water-cooler gossiping or inane pranks made on workmates, all the way through to the tidal wave of unease caused by a colleague’s cancer diagnosis, this novel seeks to capture the grand sweep of corporate drudgery in a worryingly relatable fashion.
If you’ve ever felt like nothing more than an office drone, thumping keys like a monkey and sucked into a whirlwind of bullshit, Joshua Ferris’ novel will find a way of winning you over with its witty and big-hearted slant. Comparisons will doubtless be made to Mike Judge’s film Office Space, but with literary aspirations as shrewd as the author, Ferris does try to avoid overt gags or laughs in Then We Came to the End. It’s not a comedy, is all I’m saying. Instead, the author favours a droll, melancholic air, not too dissimilar from the humour you’d find in a Wes Anderson film, albeit less kooky.
If there are any literary parallels, you’d do well to consider Douglas Coupland (author of Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture), particularly in the way Ferris tries to position this novel as a commentary on the state of the nation. Cleverly, Then We Came to the End makes use of first-person plural (‘we’) to ironically toy with a sense of collective belonging, almost as if Ferris is intending to mock the faux-solidarity office workers delude themselves into believing exists. This is why he’s worth comparing to Coupland, since they both share that same satirical sensibility.
With a story set across multiple floors in a high-rise building in Chicago, Then We Came to the End places us among a team of copywriters and creative types in the midst of a downturn at the end of the dotcom bubble. We are immediately thrust into a fraught environment where fellow co-workers are constantly fearful of redundancy, and you can almost feel the spirit-sapping stresses of 9-to-5 angst emanating from every turn of the page. Layoffs could come at any moment.
The worry of leaving suddenly clutching a cardboard box is only tempered by the personal relationships we see being rather claustrophobically cultivated. Naturally, this encompasses all the snarking and petty office politics you’d expect in any workplace, which only makes Ferris’ usage of first-person plural all the more apt. In the end, this is a deeply humane story, with characters struggling to concentrate on work in lieu of the ailing fortunes of the business, with just a pro bono marketing campaign with a mystery client keeping their minds off the inevitable.
What cuts through most, however, is Ferris’ commentary on the impact of cancer in the workplace and how it truly decimates corporate communities within offices such as this. We’ve all known someone suffering from cancer, I’m sure, and Joshua Ferris is careful to ensure this novel gives us cause for sober reflection, considering our life at work and contemplating our own mortality. It’s easy to see why Then We Came to the End is one of the most highly-praised novels of the previous decade. It has lost none of its relevance, so if you like the idea of workplace fiction, you’d do well to seek it out.
© 2019 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.