Week after week, over the last year, The Wall Street Journal columnist Jared Sandberg has helped you deal with that inescapable realm of our lives: the workplace. You now know why it often helps to feign incompetence, why crying in front of your colleagues isn’t such a bad thing after all, how you can beat insomnia by dreaming about work. Most of the characters that populate this debut novel by a former advertising copywriter, Joshua Ferris, could do with some of Sandberg’s gems.
Then We Came to the End is about a bunch of copywriters and art directors under siege. At the turn of the century, when the dot-com bubble bursts, these white-collar workers in a Chicago advertising firm are victims of collateral damage; there is no rationale as to why a person is told to leave. It is an office festering with insecurity, gossip, misplaced egos and sadness, and Ferris spins a brave, funny novel around it.
Then We Came to the End: Penguin, 385 pages, Rs234.
About 100 pages into the novel, we meet Hank Neary, a reclusive copywriter who is writing “a small, angry book about work”. His colleagues advise him to turn to more profound subjects, but he is determined. Work is where life really is, he tells them. Neary is obviously Ferris’ alter ego—he incorporates his rationale behind writing the novel into the heart of the novel itself. Although the narrator is a first person plural—“we”—Neary holds it all together as the collective voice chips away with every person fired.
We meet Karen Woo, senior art director and the office gossip, who shamelessly invents words to make her campaigns sound cool (she makes a brand of diet cookies boast that it doesn’t contain “lastive acid”); Joe Pop, sidekick of the inscrutable boss Lynn Mason, who is resented because he remains aloof from everyone; Chris Yop, a desperate middle-aged worker who clings to his lost glory; and Tom Mota, a bitter, rancorous man obsessed with mailing stinkers (and who’s fired). Amid endless meetings, work logs, rants and Internet surfing, Ferris’ narrative cruises, until Lynn is rumoured to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Around the same time, a mysterious client gives the team one of its most challenging campaigns—an ad that will make cancer patients laugh. So, will Lynn become human in front of her embittered juniors? What will finally sustain this motley group of creative people?
Those accustomed to American ways of portraying the workplace—the hit TV series The Office, the cartoon strip Dalton, the critically acclaimed comedy of the late 1990s Office Space—will be pleasantly surprised. Ferris doesn’t mean to deride or ridicule office life. He doesn’t portray the corporate office only as soul-killing and pernicious.
Cleverly enough, he offers the negative through Tom Mota, who is also the most dangerous resident of the office. The ennui and meaninglessness (most workers spend their time “inside long silent pauses bent over desks”; one of them dies and he is reduced to “a Styrofoam coffee cup on the floor under the desk, a cigarette butt curled at the bottom like a dead tequila worm”) is just a part of their lives. The evening before her mastectomy, Lynn spends a lonely evening at her cubicle working on the campaign she hopes to come back to. Ferris suffuses the office experience with purpose and meaning. The contents of desk drawers take on a life of their own.
If you have spent years in the same office, or a few years in many offices, this book will tug at you. It’s a mirror to the way we work and live.