You can’t get much more topical than a novel whose first chapter begins:
Layoffs were upon us.
Joshua Ferris’s debut novel may have been published in 2007, but feels like present day. The story revolves around a group of office workers who are one-by-one being laid off due to economic woes. In this newly created office atmosphere of doom and gloom, everyone becomes very paranoid, introspective, and slightly crazy. They collectively reflect on the good times, where it all went wrong, and whose chair they actually stole. And then there’s a crazed clown with a gun…
To be blunt, I loved every word and not because it’s perfect. I loved it because I lived it. The life of a cubicle worker who has to track every second of every day to make sure they are billable. Social hours spent in co-workers cubes talking about the most random bits of gossip with an underlying fear of being caught. Having your co-workers replace your family as these are the people you see day-in day-out; these are the people you share your hopes and your fears with because they alone understand. And then you get called into the office and told to go home – forever. You aren’t the first, and you aren’t the last because there was never anything special about you to begin with.
Ferris manages dark comedy quite well. He writes in the second person plural – the narrator is ‘we’. So the reader is also complicit in the gossip, the ups and downs. We only get a brief, but beautiful, section where we alter voice and get inside the head of partner Lynn as she begins her journey through breast cancer – and really, Lynn’s story is worth the entire price of the book. If I have a complaint, it’s that Lynn’s section was written so well that the rest of the novel kind of paled in comparison.
Then We Came to the End can come off a bit pretentious at times. Ferris tries to do a bit too much with his Dickensian cast of characters. But even if you can’t keep Jim straight from Tom, their collective fear of being let go, of starting over is universal and in the end, hopeful. What I took away from this novel was more relief at the fact that I don’t have to go back to that terribly straining and stressful life of a cube worker – that I can escape the soul crushing monotony of doing things that don’t even matter, no matter how scary taking a new path might be. So that when the end of the story comes, you don’t worry about the characters that got out so much as the characters who didn’t.