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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

I almost gave up on this book but I had already given up on two others: Hitlerland and Moonwalking with Einstein. Both are very good (as I stated earlier about Hitlerland) but I think I'm just in no mood for non-fiction. It's "summer" (unofficially for the pedantics out there) and I just want to read fiction for the time being.

But this book is written in the first person plural. What is that, you might wonder? It's the"we". As in:
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 though 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.
The entire book, except for an interlude in the middle, is written in this form. By page 30ish, I accepted this but until 30, I was annoyed. By 60, I completely was used to it and had forgotten my annoyance of it at all and was, in fact, awed by the brilliance at writing it in this first person plural. At the end of this book, there is an interview with Joshua Ferris and he is asked why he wrote it this way and he said that companies tend to refer to themselves as first-person plural: annual reports, brochures and particularly, advertising, which is where this novel takes place: an advertising office. It doesn't really matter that it's an advertising office. It's an office - office life. And if you have ever worked in an office life, you can relate to the antics and dynamics of an office life. Not all of least not in this novel, but most of it.

Page 30 was where things changed for me. Chris Yop starts on his story about his bookshelves. He's telling everyone (we) about how he had these bookshelves and the office coordinator was questioning him about the bookshelves, after Tom Mota was laid off the day before. Because, it apparently is not proper to take other people's office equipment when they were laid off. And Chris Yop is explaining his story...and during the story, he calls the bookshelves buckshelves, which they keep correcting him on. So the story goes on, in detail, including the corrections, which is so much like a regular office conversation, except about stealing buckshelves. It's great writing. And the end of the conversation? Chris Yop is fired. And everyone is staring at him like: what are you doing here, at our meeting, if you are fired?

And the boss comes in, for their 'input' meeting, with fired Chris Yop, and continues as if nothing is odd about the fired guy, and this is how the entire book goes on. It's odd with a little heart but also with cutthroat business. We get to know these people and slowly, they are walk "spanish", meaning, they each get fired from the advertising agency.

One of them, Tom Mota, the guy whose chair is the center of attention throughout the book - whose chair and/or bookshelves are stolen during page 30, comes back towards the end. He comes back and, in what is initially thought to be a deranged, angry ex-employee dressed as a clown and shoots everyone in the office, actually shoots everyone in the office dressed in a clown suit with a paintball gun. It's sick but...funny? People actually thought they were...dead. Because getting hit with a paintball pellet -- out of context -- stings and if you've never been shot before, and you see red, you think you're dying.

And Tom wasn't a bad guy. Weird and angry but he painted over a billboard that was put up to look for a co-worker's missing girl, who was shortly found dead. But no one would take the sign down because, paying to put a sign up is much easier than finding time to put the sign down. And because he knew how painful it was for her mom to see that sign everyday, he took it into his own hands and painted over it himself.

The interlude in the middle is a first person account: Lynn Mason, the ad agency's boss, has her own chapter, where she deals with the issue of her breast cancer, her personal life. The office suspects it and gossips about it but 'we' don't know the facts until this chapter devoted to Lynn.

After Lynn's interlude, nearly everyone gets laid off and we jump to five years later. A book written by one of the employees gets published and he invites everyone to his reading, which brings nearly everyone together to recount where they've all been. It's sobering as it reminds them of the life they had, how they were once a 'family'. As they try to reach one person who is missing, calling him at their old office job, they find new people at the extensions before can that be? Different people in the cubicles that once were theirs, holding their desk items, their pictures.  Pretty amazing read. I'm glad I didn't give up on it.

1 comment:

  1. Kings and Queens also refer to themselves in first person plural, "the royal we". I went through a stage where i referred to myself like this, but it didn't last long and was pretty hard to remember to keep it up. Funny that someone did it through a whole book!