Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I wrapped up the short story portion of this year’s experiment with a trip through the mind of Raymond Carver and his twisted characters. Now I’m back in novel territory with Joshua Ferris’s 2007 workplace farce Then We Came to the End.
Workplace comedy had found a steady tranche in the cultural zeitgeist by the time this novel appeared (Steve Carell’s smarmy boss on NBC’s re-working of The Office being perhaps the best example of the period), and this book is no exception. I mostly read it as a counterpoint to the manuscript I’m still laboring through rewrites, Observe and Detach. I was pleasantly surprised to see this book is not much like my own, and I found some important areas of difference in some of the lessons I drew from the book.
Use of narration. Ferris decided that a sort of weird first-person plural narrative form was best suited for this story (explained in an interview with the author at the back of my copy - about how ad agencies referred internally to the company as “we”). While I understand why he made this choice, overall it did not work for me and I found it to be slightly distracting at times. This might be due to the obsession in my own books with using singular first-person narration. Or it could be that when Ferris drops this in the middle of the book for a large section on a main character’s battle with cancer I found the prose to flow much better. Despite using this to try and make it seem like the reader is just one of the crew, I never felt that compelled to empathize.
Use of form. This might actually be what I liked least about the work - Ferris works backward through time as various people in the office tell stories from their disparate points of view. Sometimes this works, but often it ends up with a bunch of quotations packed into a dense paragraph, the characters not so individual that they can be recognized through what they say. There’s a converse to this as I will point out in a moment, but I have a feeling a better editor would have structured these paragraphs better (and maybe even use actual indentation, which Ferris manages later in the book).
Showing characters through dialogue. Despite the odd structure, Ferris is a master of capturing the minutiae of the office worker’s daily life, barraging the reader with a ton of pointless anecdotes and bizarre actions on behalf of the “creatives.” He even manages to work in a terrifying situation that has become all too real in the age Newtown and Las Vegas, even if nobody dies in this version. There are some brief forays into the territory of my own novel - mostly emails and inter-office politics. Still, I feel the form of my manuscript is sufficiently different from this one to stand out in the marketplace (once I finally get to that point).
All of this being said, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes this sort of farcical take on real life scenarios. It was well-written enough to compel me to finish it pretty quickly, allowing me to tackle at least one more novel in this experiment: Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 epic tale No Country for Old Men.
As I’ve said before, I plan on shaking up the experiment a little bit next year (or at least not be so formal about it), adding in other types of reading material such as graphic novels, and I may even try to write more about television and film. Also, a wise co-worker of mine recently pointed out the relative lack of women versus men on my reading lists, so if any of you out there have some female authors that could shake up my perspective, feel free to email/comment. I also hope to get one more essay on writing posted here before I start up some new projects in 2018. As always, thanks for reading!
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.