Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

I finished Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris yesterday. It blew me away. At one point, I found myself wiping tears off of my face. And then at other times I was laughing so hard that I made my seat-mate on the bus nervous. It’s an amazing accomplishment, not to mention right on in its observations of the hollow-ness and ferociously gossipy atmosphere of most offices. It’s just perfect that way. You spend more time with your co-workers than you do with your own family, and in a way it’s like you’re a great big family – you get to know everyone’s quirks, and some are more annoying than others … but you can’t just say, “Please go away, you’re annoying me …” You have to put a lid on your hotter passions when you are in the office and do your best to get along. And then there comes a moment when you realize that that person sitting in the cube next to yours – you may overheard the person’s phone conversations, and know that she has a bikini wax scheduled for Tuesday, or her douchebag boyfriend won’t call her back … but protocol says you can’t ask about these things – and you may know so much about someone, through osmosis, that it comes as a shock when you realize you actually don’t know anything at all. Then We Came To The End is all about those moments. Gossip feels real. And vital. It also feels irresistible. It’s difficult to turn it down, it’s difficult to not succumb. And the one guy in the office (Joe Pope, a GREAT character) who does not gossip is looked at with suspicion and loathing. There is a total group dynamic at work here … which becomes even more intense once the layoffs start. Who will be next? The book is just so accurate in observations about office life, but also about humanity – and the gap between who we are at work, and who we are at home. This is especially true of the higher-ups, the boss – who is separated from the masses below, because of her salary, her job title … She is intimidating, good at what she does – and nobody knows anything about her. When we do learn what is going on with her, it is shattering. At least I found it shattering. The SPLIT in psyches … the fact that work, with its necessary evasions and polite ignoring of tensions, becomes the place where you can hide … especially if you are a person of power. Because nobody is going to stroll up to you and say, “Hey – what the hell are you doing at work at 10 pm on a Friday night? Come on – go home!” No. Because she is the boss. I’m serious – as we got glimpses into what was happening with her (her moment in the dressing room in the department store especially) I found myself in tears. As funny as the book is, it’s a “big” book – with big themes, and I really admire a writer who can pull that off. It’s rare in the current literary climate. Joshua Ferris has figured out a way to comment on today’s economic atmosphere, and he does so in a way that is funny, accurate, heartfelt … These characters – I KNOW these people. I know Tom Mota, I know Marcia Dwyer (I love her so much!!), and Benny … Siobhan texted me the other day when I told her I was 8 pages in to Then We Came to the End and I had already laughed out loud 5 times … she texted me: “I love Benny!” And oh my God, so do I. He’s not Mr. Rochester, he’s not Sydney Carton … he’s just a guy who seemingly loves to gossip, loves his job, has an unrequited crush on Marcia … but as the book goes on, what you realize is: Benny is the glue. Benny is one of those people. We NEED Bennies. Their generosity is so often taken advantage of. Fantastic character. He killed me.

And I’m still gobsmacked by the plural narrator and how perfect it is.

Here’s an excerpt.

Marcia Dwyer became famous for sending an e-mail to Genevieve Latko-Devine. Marcia often wrote to Genevieve after meetings. “It is really irritating to work with irritating people,” she once wrote. There she ended it and waited for Genevieve’s response. Usually when she got Genevieve’s e-mail, instead of writing back, which would take too long – Marcia was an art director, not a writer – she would head down to Genevieve’s office, close the door, and the two women would talk. The only thing bearable about the irritating event involving the irritating person was the thought of telling it all to Genevieve, who would understand better than anyone else. Marcia could have called her mother, her mother would have listened. She could have called one of her four brothers, any one of those South Side pipe-ends would have been more than happy to beat up the irritating person. But they would not have understood. They would have sympathized, but that was not the same thing. Genevieve would hardly need to nod for Marcia to know she was getting through. Did we not all understand the essential need for someone to understand? But the e-mail Marcia got back was not from Genevieve. It was from Jim Jackers. “Are you talking about me?” he wrote. Amber Ludwig wrote, “I’m not Genevieve.” Benny Shassburger wrote, “I think you goofed.” Tom Mota wrote, “Ha!” Marcia was mortified. She got sixty-five emails in two minutes. One from HR cautioned her against sending personal e-mails. Jim wrote a second time. “Can you please tell me – is it me, Marcia? Am I the irritating person you’re talking about?”

Marcia wanted to eat Jim’s heart because some mornings he shuffled up to the elevators and greeted us by saying, “What up, my niggas?” He meant it ironically in an effort to be funny, but he was just not the man to pull it off. It made us cringe, especially Marcia, especially if Hank was present.

In those days it wasn’t rare for someone to push someone else down the hall really fast in a swivel chair. Games aside, we spent most of our time inside long silent pauses as we bent over our individual desks, working on some task at hand, lost to it – until Benny, bored, came and stood in the doorway. “What are you up to?” he’d ask.

It could have been any of us. “Working” was the usual reply.

Then Benny would tap his topaz class ring on the doorway and drift away.

How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space. There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with our two minds.

There seemed to be only the one electric pencil sharpener in the whole damn place.

We didn’t have much patience for cynics. Everyone was a cynic at one point or another but it did us little good to bemoan our unbelievable fortunes. At the national level things had worked out pretty well in our favor and entrepreneurial cash was easy to come by. Cars available for domestic purchase, cars that could barely fit in our driveways, had a martial appeal, a promise that, once inside them, no harm would come to our children. It was IPO this and IPO that. Everyone knew a banker, too. And how lovely it was, a bike ride around the forest preserve on a Sunday in May with our mountain bikes, water bottles, and safety helmets. Crime was at an all-time low and we heard accounts of former welfare recipients holding steady jobs. New hair products were being introduced into the marketplace every day and the glass shelves of our stylists were stocked with tidy rows of them, which we eyed in the mirror as we made small talk, each of us certain, there’s one up there just for me. Still, some of us had a hard time finding boyfriends. Some of us had a hard time fucking our wives.

Some days we met in the kitchen on sixty to eat lunch. There was only room for eight at the table. If all the seats were full, Jim Jackers would have to eat his sandwich from the sink and try to engage from over in that direction. It was fortunate for us in that he could pass us a spoon or a packet of salt if we needed it.

“It is really irritating,” Tom Mota said to the table, “to work with irritating people.”

“Screw you, Tom,” Marcia replied.

The book packed an unexpected punch. I was surprised at how moved I was “when I came to the end”.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

  1. siobhan says:

    i am so glad you read this and i am so glad you loved it! i was totlaly moved too when i read it. how rare it is to laugh THAT LOUDLY at a book and then be reduced to tears by it’s end. those characters will stick with me for a long time.

  2. red says:

    I love Jim Jackers so much. He’s just that guy who wants to be liked so badly – and it can be so annoying but when you see what’s really going on with him, your heart just cracks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.