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Book Club Wed Mar 25 2009
"You don't know what's in my heart." That's what Tom Mota tells co-worker Benny Shassburger in the opening pages of Then We Came to the End when Benny questions Tom's recent practice of wearing three company polo shirts at the same time, one layered on top of another. But Tom's lament is also a reminder that sometimes the people with whom we spend the most time—our co-workers—are the ones we know the least.
Then We Came to the End is a darkly funny debut novel set in an unnamed Chicago ad agency. And although it is set during the dot-com bust of the turn of the twentieth century, the fear and insecurity of the characters in an atmosphere of corporate layoffs is timely and relevant.
Tom Mota, the office jerk, and Benny Shassburger are just two of the office mates we meet in the novel. There's also Janine Gorjanc, who is grieving her murdered daughter, Carl Garbedian, who is stealing Janine's anti-depressants, Joe Pope, who locks up his bicycle inside his office, and Chris Yop, who shows up to an input meeting after he's just been laid off because the "meeting's been on [his] calendar for a long time." They, plus several others, work under Lynn Mason, who everybody "knows" has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and Lynn has them working on a pro-bono ad campaign for a breast cancer fund-raising event. This assignment is their only remaining job in the economic downturn, and they are all trying to stay employed.
The novel is narrated in the first-person plural. The first paragraph starts, "We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise...We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently." Stories are related through the office grapevine, as folks gather around each other's cubicles. But rather than being distracting or difficult, the "we" narration has the effect of drawing us into this circle of co-workers, until we the readers feel part of the group, too, hanging out in Benny's office or talking in conspiratorial whispers in the break room.
At first glance, it might seem easy to compare Then We Came to the End to the television show "The Office" or the 1999 film Office Space for the way all three dissect modern office life, but that does the book a disservice. This novel not only brilliantly captures the absurdity of white-collar work, but also delves deeper to reveal one's co-workers as members of the most dysfunctional family of all.
Then We Came to the End was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist. Ferris is also a winner of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Award and the winner of the 2008 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for a distinguished book of first fiction.
Joshua Ferris was born in downstate Danville, Ill. He graduated from the University of Iowa before moving to Chicago where he worked—wait for it—at an advertising agency. He currently lives in Brooklyn.
Be sure to visit the very clever website for the book from publisher Hachette Book Group. The site includes a virtual office where you can eavesdrop on office gossip in the conference room, kitchen and copy room, plus learn more about the characters, including links to their MySpace pages. Guess who has a photo of a totem pole for his profile picture.
Powells.com also has a great interview with Ferris in which he provides compelling reasons for writing the novel in first-person plural.
According to this BookPage interview, Ferris wrote Then We Came to the End in just 14 weeks, working on the novel 14-16 hours a day.