Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End got a lot of good press and won some awards, including the 2007 PEN/Hemingway Award. It's the story of a group of people who work together in a Chicago advertising agency. The agency is in decline; one by one the copywriters and graphic designers are being laid off as the clients disappear and the work dries up. Meanwhile, the remaining staff gather in one another's offices to commiserate, gossip, drink coffee and, in some cases, plan their escapes.
A great deal of the book consists of these glib conversations that take place in one cubicle or another. As in a real workplace, sometimes these conversations are clever, but a lot of the time they are trite, and Ferris doesn't really favor one sort over the other. Hence we endure endless discussions about Marcia's new hairstyle, and whether or not Larry is going to leave his wife for Amber.
Reviewers rave about how Ferris captures the ennui and the cynicism that characterize modern office life, and he does. But if you already work in an office where ennui and cynicism are the norm, do you really want to read about it for fun, too? It's not like their ennui and cynicism are any different from anyone else's.
Occasionally Ferris introduces some pathos or action that moves the story to another level, like when Janine feels compelled to mourn her murdered daughter by spending her lunch hour in the plastic ball pit at McDonalds, or when Tom decides to take his tragicomic revenge for being laid off. But these moments are too infrequent to counteract the endless boring debates about who should get the chair of the most recently departed employee. Yes, I realize that the pointlessness is the point. But does all this really add up to one of the best books of 2007?
The author uses a third-person-plural narrative voice to bring you right into the action (or what passes for action), and it works better than I thought it would, though sometimes it just seems self-consciously clever and distracting.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.