April 23, 2007

Joshua Ferris: Then We Came to the End

Posted in Ferris Joshua at 8:14 am by John Self

Good novels that reflect the politics, repetition and futility of most people’s working lives are few and far between, and are most successful when they also deal with the other parts of the subject’s (inner or outer) life. Among the best of my experience are Magnus Mills’s The Restraint of Beasts, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Joseph Heller’s mesmeric masterpiece Something Happened. Concentrate solely on the working environment and you get something like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, which was wildly entertaining for a quarter of its four hundred pages but ran out of steam long before it ran out of words. And this, unfortunately, is the model which Joshua Ferris has adopted with his debut novel Then We Came to the End: except for ‘wildly entertaining,’ read ‘mildly.’

In the acknowledgements Ferris credits as the source for his title, Don DeLillo’s Americana, and the comparison is invidious. DeLillo, while as much hated as loved, is a master stylist, and the style that Ferris has (no doubt intentionally) adopted for his story is the gossipy voice of trivia and minutiae. It’s set in a Chicago advertising agency and the USP is that the book is narrated in the first person plural – something I haven’t seen since The Virgin Suicides – although the ‘we’ of the book is really a tool to enable Ferris to fly omnisciently into all the employees’ experiences and actions. So the anecdotal style is seductive and pleasurable to begin with, but soon palls. It’s at its most amusing when the ‘creatives’ are working on an ad appealing for information on the missing daughter of one of their colleagues:

Genevieve dropped the image of the girl into Photoshop and started playing up the girl’s hair and freckles. [W]e feared that if she was washed out, people would look right past the flyer.

Genevieve didn’t lack for more suggestions. “Pump ‘MISSING’ up a little,” said Jim Jackers.

“And play up the $10,000 reward,” suggested Tom. “I don’t know how, just … use a different font or something.”

“And you have some kerning issues,” Benny reminded her from the sidelines.

We all wanted to help. Genevieve worked on it another hour, tweaking this and that, until someone recommended that she fix the little girl’s smile to be less crooked. Jessica would look prettier that way.

And in this vein the book is diverting enough for a time. We get the usual office scenarios: petty minded bureaucracy, the vexed question of who owns which chair, the desire to appear busy while doing as little work as possible, and the constant fear (justified or not) of lay-offs or, as Ferris puts it, ‘walking Spanish down the hall.’ It strains toward significance in touching on issues like obsession and grief, and aims for something slightly epic with a long time break toward the end, but it never really tickles the heart or makes the reader jump or start.

The best of the novel comes halfway through, with a break into the life of Lynn Mason, the ballbreaking boss of the agency who is rumoured to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. For a quiet, resolute chapter, Ferris breaks out of the first person plural, cuts the background babble and gives us a surprisingly affecting and effective portrait of a woman who daren’t risk losing control. Once normal service resumed after this, I hoped it might have an added resonance, or made richer from being informed by what went before: but it was business as usual.

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23 Comments »

  1. sara said,

    I thought this book looked really interesting and was highly optimistic that it would be good. I hated it! Couldn’t even get half way through actually. It was so dull when I expected it to be fun.

  2. John Self said,

    My thoughts exactly Sara. I was actually excited about reading it and kept eyeing it jealously when I was getting through the books I read before it. Ferris wrote a piece in the Guardian on Saturday about workplace fiction, and he knows his stuff (citing two of the ones I did above, plus loads of others like Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt – good book – and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener – which I’ve got but haven’t read). Shame he was unable to live up to them. Disappointment of the year so far for me.

  3. Alan said,

    This is the only review of this much hyped book I’ve read that I agree with. The Guardian (or The Observer) even mentioned it as one to watch for 2007 at the turn of the year.

    Brilliant review (again).

  4. John Self said,

    Yes Alan, it was the Observer rave (a few weeks ago) that made me buy it. At that point I’d never heard of it but since then it’s been featuring heavily in the press and prominently in the shops so I guess the Penguin hype machine is well at work. Nonetheless a lot of professional reviewers really do genuinely seem to love it. The Telegraph called it ‘exceptional.’ The Sunday Times yesterday called it ‘outstanding’ and the Times reviewer earlier this month said “I can’t overstate how excited I am by this book … because it has truly captured the way we work now” – well, if you mean it was long and dull and I looked forward to my tea breaks, then I see what you’re getting at…

    But I am in danger now of forgetting the things I did like about the book, so I’ll stop there. I do wonder if I read the same one as these reviewers though. I’m glad you guys agree anyway!

  5. Nick said,

    Hi John. I’ve had a very similar experience with Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. Praised to the skies by umpteen reviewers, shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize etc, but I’ve abandoned it after plodding through 100 pages (and I don’t often abandon books) because it’s so mind-numbingly dull and predictable. Detailed descriptions that tell you nothing, stereotyped characters I couldn’t raise any interest in. Jenny actually read the whole book but was equally disappointed. As you say, did the reviewers read the same book or was it somehow digitally enhanced for their benefit? Sorry Sarah but it’s going straight into the bag for the charity shop and good riddance!

  6. John Self said,

    I felt the same way about The Night Watch, Nick, though I did finish it. I thought the writing was good enough on a sentence-by-sentence level, but the backwards time scheme (deliberately) robbed it of any what-happened-next tension.

    I do wonder if, when novelists review other novelists’ work, they are a little easier than they might be, on the grounds of (a) they might meet the subject of their review some day, and (b) there-but-for-the-grace-of-God considerations. Which is all very understandable (if true), but doesn’t help the general reader get an impression of whether this particular book is really worth shelling out £15 – or £8 a year later – for.

  7. What a relief! Can I join this little “I didn’t enjoy The Night Watch” group? I watched the hype growing, saw it make every prize list and just couldn’t understand how.I’d blamed myself as obviously missing something crucial but perhaps not.

  8. Nick said,

    Yes please join the group. It could even be the next big thing – the IDETNW group sweeps the world with millions of adherents. Then photocalls, merchandising, loadsamoney. Sounds good to me. We could even cut Sarah in on the profits, just to show there’s no hard feelings.

  9. Tony S. said,

    This is the book I’m reading now. My daughter bought it for my birthday, and I will continue to read it. It’s not a bad read, just not a great read. You’re right that the first person plural narrator that Joshua Ferris uses is kind of off-putting. At the same time I’m reading this book, I’m listening to the audio CD of “Catch-22″ by Joseph Heller which is even more hilarious in its insane lunacy than I remembered it. The next book about the workplace I will read is going to be “Something Happened”.

  10. John Self said,

    Oh, you’re in for a treat there Tony – with Something Happened I mean, that’s if you haven’t read it before. Or even if you have, if you see what I mean. I really wanted to like Ferris’s book, but was disappointed. I still can’t understand all the praise it received in the press.

  11. John Self said,

    Then We Came to the End has been named as one of the books of the 2008 run of the Richard & Judy Book Club (readers outside the UK, that’s like our version of Oprah) – so expect to see and hear much more of it soon. I hope R&J and their viewers like it more than I did.

  12. Lynn Dee said,

    I’m about 70 or 80 pages into Then We Came to the End, and I am not impressed. I don’t know why I’m still reading it, except that it came so highly recommended. There is an appeal of sorts to the closed environment, the cubicles, the finite number of people, etc. etc. that feels familiar or something.

    But why anyone is raving about this book is a mystery to me.

  13. John Self said,

    As you can see above Lynn, I completely agree! It’s possible to feel indifferent about a book but still understand why others rate it, but with Then We Came to the End I just couldn’t see what was supposed to be so good about it. For good workplace writing I’d recommend the titles I mention in the opening paragraph, including Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (where the closed environment is a man’s self-tortured mind).

  14. Lee Monks said,

    Forgive me if this has already been mentioned on this thread, but Michael Bracewell’s ‘Perfect Tense’ is, I recall, a suitably morose encapsulation of office drudgery, tinged with occasional poetic flourishes and an icily familiar sense of time dwindling…or am I casting a favourable backward glance? It has been a while, but even if it’s half as good as I recall, it’s a noteworthy addition to the ‘workplace’ canon. ‘Something Happened’, which John mentions, is without doubt the best novel of this type I have read. Mind you, it’s probably in my all-time top ten so that figures!

  15. John Self said,

    Thanks for the recommendation, Lee. I have heard of Bracewell but have never investigated him. I will add it to my ever-burgeoning list. (Checking Amazon, I see it clocks in at 176 pages, meaning it might make it to the top before its time!)

  16. Lee Monks said,

    176 pages. Blimey, I’ve got a couple of pages of A4 with titles scribbled down! This touches on one of my main regrets, though. All the books, so little time…and as time wears on, the ‘doorstopper’ cumbersome word-mountains tend to get overlooked proportionately; Pynchon’s last a notable victim of this burgeoning ruthlessness. How many ambles around Borders or Waterstones have evoked a kind of yearnful inner-groan as I swiftly place the post-500 word tome back whence it came and avidly caressed the 200-350 worder that daunted me that much less…?

  17. John Self said,

    No no no, Lee! I meant Present Tense clocks in at 176 pages! (I ordered a copy on Amazon Marketplace last night.) Crikey, a TBR list of that length would be quite something.

    As for short books, make no apologies for choosing them. We all read in a real world environment, where we have other calls on our time and never enough space to settle down and just read (or is that just me?). Authors like Philip Hensher, with his 740-pager, have only themselves to blame if people turn them down in favour of three books of 250 pages each. Some long books need to be long, but many are, as Martin Amis put it, just short books that go on for a long time.

  18. Sam said,

    I really enjoyed it! At least a year must’ve passed since I read it, but I remember smiling quite a bit. The way we start off with this faceless group of office-workers and then watch them slowly become more and more delineated from the rest of the crowd was very well handled (even if the characters do never become more than two-dimensional). He’s a very good writer at the sentence level, too: clear, crisp, with an excellent ear for dialogue. I remember nodding admiringly more than once at a choice of word or a turn of phrase.

    The middle section on the boss’s – Lynn’s – cancer was a bit sentimental and could’ve been cut, or those plot-points integrated into the rest of the novel without losing the first-person-plural narration. But, still, I’ll definitely be buying his next piece of fiction.

  19. Lee Monks said,

    Ahhh…..having read that again you were perfectly clear, John, so I’ve no idea what I was wittering about! Anyway, hope you enjoy it. If I was a betting man I’d put 20 down on that being the case…

  20. R.LaVally said,

    Just read Ferris’s book for my book club and understand why it was chosen, given the reviews, but don’t understand why it received such an unmixed set of rave reviews in the first place. Thank you for another perspective. At half the length, this might have been a useful book for its (sad, not hilarious) commentary on cubicle life, but given its length and the time required to read it, the cost-benefit ratio of this reading experience didn’t work for me. I learned nothing, skimmed or skipped many pages, and was relieved that the book finally “came to the end.” I’m sure it has a meaningful place in the genre. But I found it about as interesting and purposeful as a day in the mind-numbing office life that it describes. Thanks again for another view.

  21. John Self said,

    Thanks for commenting, R., and I’m glad to be the go-to guy for negative opinions on this book! You might find Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, worthwhile. It’s still in my view not entirely successful, but much more interesting than Then We Came to the End. I’ve written about it on this blog (click on Ferris’s name in the Author Index on the sidebar).

  22. [...] Reviews: Asylum | Buried in Print [...]

  23. [...] Asylum – “It strains toward significance in touching on issues like obsession and grief, and aims for something slightly epic with a long time break toward the end, but it never really tickles the heart or makes the reader jump or start.” [...]


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