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.