Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We're currently discussing this month's selection, Joshua Ferris' Then We Came To The End, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST, and an interview with Ferris on Friday.
Let’s talk a bit about the characters in Then We Came To The End. Did you identify with any of them particularly? Lynn Mason has a marked advantage there, as the POV character who gets to have some actual depth and personality, and gets to be seen from the inside, for her feelings, rather than just the outside, for her quirks and how she affects the people around her. (It’s a fake-out, yes, but we don’t learn that until very late in the game.) But she’s the outlier in a lot of ways. I felt like there were flashes of relatability to the characters—particularly in Benny, so baffled when Brizz left him a totem pole in his will, yet so mysteriously engaged with it—but for the most part, they were more like heightened stereotypes than actual people. Maybe that’s just the affect of seeing them only from the outside, and only in the ways they most stick out as individuals—they’re part of the collective smoothing-over of the “we” voice, except when they do annoying or weird or entertaining or otherwise boat-rocking things. And the authorial voice so often seems annoyed with them for it, or at least dubious, that I found it a little hard to see them as people, much less people deserving of empathy.
Which is why I was a little surprised at how closely I empathized with Joe Pope, as seemingly the one decent guy in the office, the guy who never fits in with “we,” and always seems to be struggling to do the right thing. We see far less of him as an individualized person than we do of practically any named character, maybe because he’s so far outside the collective, so maybe it’s odd that I see him as a good guy. Maybe I just identify with him because he’s enough of a blank that I’m free to map a kind of longsuffering nobility onto him. For all I know, Ferris might just have meant him to be an uncomfortable, stuffed-shirt wannabe who just doesn’t fit in. Nonetheless, I was fascinated every time he stiffly chided people for their bad behavior; he provides just these brief glimpses of a larger world outside the “we,” one not privy to the emotional support and affirmation of collectivism, and I loved him for it.
Did you root against any of the characters? I was actively waiting for Tom Mota to get fired, and I was relieved when he did. The authorial “we” seems to regard him as entertainment as much as anything else—I think Leonard and Donna pegged it on Tuesday when they talked about how drama in the office offsets the dullness of life, and under that rubric, Tom was a boon to the office, since he was always doing something radically different—but all I could think about was how terrible it would be to work with him and actually be in a position of relying on him for things. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t go earlier; he seemed entirely counterproductive and disruptive. Yes, his scene on the dilapidated billboard is a high point, for him and for the book, but even so… did he ever belong in a close office setting? I wish I’d seen more of what got him hired in the first place, though I suppose every office has one of those “What is he doing here, and why don’t they get rid of him?” guys.
What else do you guys have to say about the characters in this book?
Oddly enough, if there's anyone I rooted against, it was probably Joe Pope; while I was drawn to his efficiency and focus, and somewhat admired his determination not to sink down into the muck, his speech about not wanting to be part of the group because any group automatically lowered the individuals in it struck me as snobbish, elitist and arrogant -- even though he gave it specifically to deflect those very charges. Thinking that you're better than a group is just a variant of thinking you're better than other people, after all; the collective may squash certain individualist qualities, but its strength and its weakness is that it is made up of individuals. Plenty of people are able to resist the allure of groupthink without coming across as a self-righteous dick, a pitfall I don't think Joe entirely avoided.
As I alluded to before, I was much more able to identify with the situation of the group than I was the personality of the individual members. I naturally gravitated towards Benny more than a little, as I'd bet most of us did (and I think if you got a beer or two into Joshua Ferris, he'd cop to that character more than others as being a stand-in for himself), and I found things to identify with in Tom Mota and Carl Garbeian especially, but generally speaking, I felt as if I was being taken on a tour of the personality quirks of all the people I'd ever worked with -- I saw in each character little elements of those I shared office space with for a few fleeting years, and even formulated images in my head of the characters based not only on Ferris' descriptions, but my own memories of men and women from my past who bore similar traits. And if I were a betting man, I'd say that's just what the author had in mind.
Even though she's the most distant character (I discount the chapter from her point of view, because as I said on Monday, I didn't buy it), I identified most with Lynn. Maybe I think that my colleagues see me as something of a Lynn. Focused, somewhat imperial, mysterious, hard to socialize with, intimidating. Or is that just wishful thinking on my part? Is it that I would like to be seen as a Lynn? I suppose I felt all the way through that it wasn't Lynn's fault she was mysterious and opaque to her co-workers. It was their fault for subconsciously blaming her for not being just like them. And so I liked Joe Pope, too, because he tried to build a bridge -- because he believed that she was the kind of person you could have a relationship with, and acted on that belief.
It feels odd for me to say that those were my two favorite or most empathetic characters, because they are the two character who emphatically are not included in the first person plural. Chris Yop is in the we, Tom Mota is in the we, even though they do profoundly odd and destructive (and self-destructive) things. We readers are supposed to understand their impulses (and I do). But the people who are outsiders to the cubicles, the people with offices -- those are "they," not "we." Maybe it says something about my lust for power or my elitism or something that I felt most deeply for "them," for The Man and not the proletariat. But I think it says something very positive about Ferris that he created a "them" I wanted to know and to be.
I didn't relate to any of these people, really. I thought Tom was the most interesting of the bunch because of his live-wire nature, and because he was the only character who was impossible to peg throughout, but I didn't really identify with him. Joe Pope wasn't really a person so much as an ideal; his speech about not wanting to sink in and become part of the group appealed to me, but I also found him and Lynn to be just as blinded in their own ways as they accused the group of being. And I never really thought the group was all that destructive. They were gossipy, and the pranks they pulled on Benny were childish and stupid, but apart from a certain understandable selfishness, the concern for Lynn's well-being was genuine. Lynn was too distant from the narrative for me to really care about her fate that much--while her chapter was well-written and sometimes moving (I really loved the sequence with her non-boyfriend, Martin, blindfolding her and taking her different places), once it was over, she disappeared back into the ether.
I suppose I related a little to Carl and Benny, the former for his depression, the latter for his unspoken workplace crush. But the drawback of the "we" perspective is that it makes it difficult to latch on to individuals. I think the trade off is understandable, because whatever my problems with the voice, I think the novel wouldn't have worked at all without it. But the majority of these people are, intentionally or not, handpicked from the Big Book O' Office Cliches, so the already merging affect of the plural narrator is heightened. So there are lots of moments I really liked, but apart from Tom, not many people.
One of the tricks I thought Ferris pulled off most successfully in this book was replicating an office full of people from the perspective of those who work with them every day. True, we get snatches here and there of the people working in the agency -- more in some cases -- but the flatness worked for me as a recreation of how little we get to know our coworkers. Who hasn’t worked with people you know and belittle (or envy) for one characteristic that sticks out just enough above the others? Naturally, none of the employees in “Then We Came To The End” started out as inter-office adulterers or unstoppable gossips, but they fell or were pushed into their roles over time.
I rooted for Lynn to open up a little and I probably liked Benny in spite of myself, but in a weird way I found myself empathizing with Chris Yop, the chair enthusiast (to put it mildly), layoff victim and eventual trespasser. He symbolized the human entropy in the cubicle system, the petty care that can’t be ironed out by congenial coffee breaks and personality tests. When he showed back up at the office I felt that I should have found that scene hokey in a Michael Scott sort of way, but I was amused and a little moved. And let’s face it, every office has its bad chairs, and someone has to sit in them.
At the risk of aligning myself with an arrogant elite, I most admired Joe Pope for trying to keep his head down and do his job—or whatever’s left of it, anyway. Of course, that makes him the crusty dean of this wacky ensemble comedy, the wet blanket who’s despised for keeping everyone else from goofing off. But I wouldn’t say I identity with anyone in the book, nor do I believe it important to have that connection; it’s enough to me that they be interesting, not necessarily relatable. To that end, I think Ferris’ collective voice keeps us at a distance from everyone but Lynn, because she’s the only one who gets her own chapter. (Part of the reason I love that chapter is that it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ferris is as skilled at portraiture as he is at presenting the office as organism.) The other characters are handled with an almost anthropological mode of observation, defined by their odd fascinations (Benny and the totem pole), their paranoia (the office chair serial number thing), and the minor dramas that consume their lives. I think it’s a consequence—and not a negative one—of the first-person plural voice that we don’t any of them (Lynn excluded) beyond a few telling characteristics and habits.