I picked up this novel because I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, though, as my review states, I was at a loss to explain exactly why I liked it. Ferris’s sense of humor appealed to me, though, and I like authors who don’t claim to have all the answers. Then We Came to the End is his first novel, and it is certainly a curiosity. Written in first-person plural point of view, the narrators’ “we” refers to the employees of an advertising agency that is going through hard times and, consequentially, layoffs. The unusual narrative style is a little disconcerting at first, but I soon learned to not only roll with it but enjoy it.
On the surface, this novel is about the dark side of gainful employment, a la Office Space. The team of copywriters, designers, and advertising consultants waste their time gossiping, playing pranks, and switching out their office chairs for the better ones left behind by those who have been fired, defying the wrath of the company office manager and local chair Nazi, all while billing their hours to one of their few remaining customers. The team can’t even keep their collective sense of humor in check while putting together a “Missing” poster for a co-worker’s lost child, who turns out to have been murdered (I told you it was dark). They only pause their hijinks long enough to occasionally wonder about their futures as more and more employees are let go. “It was fun, imagining our eventual despair. It was also despairing. We didn’t really believe we’d be honked at from the Lexuses of our former colleagues as they drove down Lower Wacker on their way home to the suburbs. We didn’t think we would be forced to wave at them from our lit oil drums. But that we might have to fill out an unemployment form over the Internet was not out of the question.”
The struggle is real.
I found all this chair switching and office drama that wasn’t happening to me in real life for a change rather amusing, but after about a hundred pages I started to wonder how long Ferris could keep this up and continue to engage me. Sure, I laughed out loud a number of times, and I was enjoying the ride, but where was this going? This was the point where I began describing this book as an episode of The Office as directed by Robert Altman. The characters are plentiful and a bit over-the-top, yet they all sort of just bump into each other as they meander through the story, while the audience tries to figure out what the central conflict is supposed to be.
Me watching Short Cuts
Yet as I sped through the many pages of silliness, the novel started to win me over, big time. I began to recognize the dread the characters felt watching their co-workers being picked off one by one. At the same time, Lynne Mason, their boss and one of the firm’s partners, is rumored to have cancer and deals with the possibility of being picked off in a much more permanent manner. Additionally, some of the characters fear that a disgruntled ex-colleague is going to come back and seek revenge. The whole novel takes on a tone of people laughing in desperation, just trying to make it through the next round of cuts. When someone is let go, the rest of the group makes jokes about how they were thrown out the door onto the street. “It was all fun and games after they were gone. Easier to make cartoons of them than to wonder for any amount of time how Amber was going to find a new job before the baby came, or how unjust they were to let go of her while keeping Larry on. Easier to joke than to feel sorry for Jim, who had been everyone’s whipping boy for so long that we had nothing left after his departure but loathsome memories of our bullying and cruel remarks.”
In the denouement, the novel confronts how people who have been part of something for so long eventually become vague memories. Just about anyone who has been part of an organization that underwent layoffs can relate to the dark humor of the situation, the way every day becomes a game of Survivor, where you wonder who is next to be booted off the island.
Me, circa 2003
But I could also relate to the way people you spend 40+ hours per week with can be sucked from your memory over time. You may get together a few times for a “reunion” of sorts. You may recall faces and a few stories. But sooner or later you find yourself wondering who the hell Hank Neary was.
The only way I’ll remember the people who got laid off before me.
Then We Came to the End is pretty goddamn clever. The odd first-person plural narrative is interrupted half-way through the book for a more traditional type of storytelling, the purpose of which is only explained at the end of the novel. What begins as an amusing oddity morphs into a poignant, heartfelt story about humanity. Additionally, it includes the slyest, most subtle allusion to 9/11 I’ve seen in popular culture. When I came to the end, I found it weirdly touching.