Then We Came To The End: Opening thoughts on voice and style
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.
When I first heard about Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came To The End, I was pretty dubious about the description: a dry office comedy written in first-person plural? It sounded god-awful gimmicky, pretentious, and mannered. And yet the reviews seemed overwhelmingly positive, and Ferris picked up a bunch of enthusiastic press. So when we ended up with a spare copy in the office, I took it home, and it promptly sat on the shelf untouched for two years, like most of the books I bring home from work. When a commenter suggested it for Wrapped Up In Books, it seemed to me like a natural fit—a lauded book I’d long been meaning to read, and by an author with a new one on the way. But I went in trepidatious, half-expecting a windy style experiment, and half expecting a prose version of Dilbert. Maybe Then We Came To The End benefited from low expectations on my part, but I wound up enjoying it a great deal, and getting completely caught up in its will-we-or-won’t-we-all-get-fired drama.
For me, it read as fast as a modern pulp novel; I actually found a lot of tension in the question of what would happen to these people. I won’t say I cared about them individually, because I doubt we’re meant to—except maybe for put-upon Joe Pope, who isn’t part of the “we” collective, and seems to be trying so hard and so often and so gently to do the right thing. But I’ve had jobs I hated but still didn’t want to get fired from, and I’ve had at least one job at a disintegrating company where passive-aggressive time-wasting and management-bashing was the popular group sport, so I identified with the situation presented in the book, even as I didn’t like many of the people experiencing it. I think we’re all meant to identify with the discomfiting setting, just like we’re all meant to identify with the novel’s voice, which matter-of-factly includes us in the office’s collective if we want to be included.
I feel like any discussion of this book naturally has to start with that voice, so here are a few basic questions to start with, for my fellow staffers and the readers at large. Did you wind up being comfortable with the first-person-plural conceit? Did it seem like a natural voice for the story, or did you find it contrived? What did you get out of it as a concept?
Personally, I was prepared to dislike it, but it seems to me that from the start, Ferris uses it to suggest themes without spelling them out. For instance, the idea of collective responsibility. Whatever happens in the office—theft, incompetence, indifference to other people’s suffering, deliberate wasting of time and resources, responsibility-dodging, even active malice and sabotage—is presented as not the fault of anyone specific: It just organically happens, in the same general-fog way that gossip, rumors, and judgments spread among people. It’s just something that spontaneously happens in offices. Except of course that it really doesn’t. The collective narrator is an unreliable, self-serving narrator, just like everyone on the Internet or in politics who insists “There’s a silent majority out there that agrees with me, and morally speaking, that makes you wrong even if I’m the only one actually complaining about you.” But that idea of bailing on responsibility, that sense that everything that happens is someone else’s fault, strikes me as endemic to corporate situations, and maybe just group politics in general, and the voice of the novel seems like a clever way to get it across.
And then when Ferris briefly abandons it, for the Lynn Mason segment, I felt her loneliness and alienness much more keenly, as she was left outside the comforting anonymity of the “we” crowd. As the book progresses and we get to know the individuals in the office better and better, that “we” becomes a progressively thinner veil, more and more of an illusion that even the narrator doesn’t seem to believe in, especially as more people are fired and that protective anonymity fades. And I felt in the process like we were actually losing a character, even if that character was inchoate and illusory. By the end of the novel, it really is like an individual has been lost with the breakup of the office. Granted, maybe nothing valuable has been lost there—that illusory individual was spiteful, petty, suffering from a fatal lack of empathy, and often not very good at its job. But Ferris made me feel that sense that a busy office has a personality, and that personnel changes alter the personality, and it can be a good or bad transition.
And frankly, there was an awful lot of comedy in the sheer terribleness of that office’s personality. Sections like the one on the Bible study class, for instance, reveal an office personality that’s more than a little unsettling and crazy: “The sight of a dozen Bibles open on a cafeteria table and the familiar heads now bowed in a wild transformation of our long-established expectations of who they were shook us a little, as if forcing us to confront the possibility that we knew nothing, absolutely nothing about the inner lives of anyone here. But that soon passed. Our scope was infinite, our reach almighty, our knowledge was complete. Goddamn it, sometimes it felt like we were God. Was it such a blasphemy? We knew everything, we had terrible powers, we would never die. Was it such a surprise that most of us did not join in at Bible study?”
Which brings up another issue for me—that presumed perfection of the group stands in sharp contrast to the many, many flaws of the individuals that make it up. The voice, the assumption of a perfect whole not fainted with human flaws, hovers over all the characters, making them seem smaller, crazier, and more damaged by comparison. I loved the way anyone who dares have a personality of their own—which is to say, everyone named in the book, just about—immediately becomes pettier, more problematic, and more open to judgment. We can talk about specifics more later, when we get into some of the characters.
Another question for the group: Were you, as I was, a little disappointed at the end, with Hank Neary’s reading, which seems to reveal that the Lynn Mason individual segments are meant as a fiction within the fiction, that they’re Hank Neary’s approximation of Lynn’s life rather than her actual life? It seemed to me that Ferris did something powerful with that POV shift, by exposing us to the contrast between that nebulous indifference of groups and the strong, specific personality of one person, and by pulling back the veil and revealing what was going on with Lynn. And then he retroactively fictionalized it. It’s an interesting move, but I personally felt a little cheated.
What else do you guys have to say about the book’s style? We want this to be a rolling discussion, but we also want to break it down into natural segments, so we’ll get into other aspects of Then We Came To The End throughout the week.
Like you, Tasha, I found the first-person plural voice easy and breezy, if not always beautiful and Cover Girl. There's a natural fit between that collective Ferris makes us a part of, and the office setting. Offices are almost always about a tension between group and individual identity. Who do you like? Me too! Who can't you stand? Me too! Where do your loyalties lie? Well, now, I'm not sure I want to stand with you on that one… might be some advantage for me in cultivating another path to the top, or at least a comfortable place in the middle.
But maybe it's too damn easy. Because when Ferris tried to break the spell and take us with Lynn into the sleepless night and the terrible loneliness of her diagnosis, I wasn't quite buying it. I think it would have been excellent writing in a different novel. (Maybe even Hank's novel.) But I really missed the… camaraderie of that "we." Without it, frankly, that section felt writerly and fake. I wasn't under the impression in the first third of the book that I was reading non-fiction, exactly, but at least Ferris had me under some spell of mutual observation: Yes, I've been there. When he had to take me somewhere I've never been—a crucial piece of magic for a writer to hoard in his bag of tricks--I didn't exactly buy it.
And so the revelation at the reading, that we might have been treated to a preview of Hank's novel instead of really driving on Lakeshore with Lynn, didn't bug me in the slightest. Instead of disappointing, I found it briefly resonant, a nice callback. That chapter was already meta-fictionalized for me, so I didn't mind that it showed up as fiction explicitly.
A few of the pull-quotes at the start of my copy of the book mentioned Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, as being an obvious source of inspiration for Ferris, specifically Heller's novel about workplace alienation, Something Happened, and that comparison is dead on. I haven't read Something Happened since college, but it was the first thing I thought of when I started this book, even without reading those quotes. Heller's novel uses first person singular instead of plural, but there's that same sense of foggy immediacy, of being immersed in a very present world that's hard to precisely pin down. Ferris does a fine job of evoking the sense of continuity that comes from working in an office, and, as specific as he gets, he leaves enough openness that it's easy to relate to the environment even if, like me, you've never worked for an ad agency before.
But while I enjoyed the book very much at the start, it lost me somewhat before I finished, and the voice is part of that. It's such an initially strong, clever conceit, for the reasons Tasha mentions above, and also because it's so unusual that you can't help be drawn along, curious to see if that ingenuity can be maintained for an entire narrative. Plus, the loose, anecdotal-style that makes up the majority of the novel's content, is generally easier to read because any single incident only takes up, at most, a few pages. While the book has plent of distinctive characters, we're never really committed to any of them (outside Lynn's chapter) for very long. It creates a strong sense of flow, and, for a while at least, made it a page-turner for me.
That didn't last, though. The Lynn Mason section was definitely a roadblock. It's not a bad piece of writing, and I can understand why Ferris chose to include it, but one of the drawbacks of choosing such a bold voice at the start of the novel means that if you cheat, if you go outside the rules, you have to come up with a very good reason to do so. I didn't think Mason was a good enough reason. Her cancer diagnosis was sad, and the character was well-drawn, but her presence in the rest of the book didn't really earn the time we spend with her here. I didn't actively dislike the chapter, but like Donna, I thought it was a little showy, a little, "Hey, I can be a serious writer too!"
In the end, though, I left this one mildly disappointed, and Mason's chapter isn't the major cause. The problem, I think, is that as clever and engaging as the first-person plural voice is, it loses power as it goes. There were pieces and moments in the story that I thought were excellent--Tom's return to the office was great--but after a while, I found myself questioning why I was still reading, because there was no sense of rising action. The threat of lay-offs was in the air, but I didn't really care if any of these characters were fired. There were interesting stories here, but I feel like Ferris was unable to make enough of them distinctive without the voice, so that once the novelty wears off, once I realized there were only a certain number of tricks he could manage, the book just sort of muttered off into nothing.
Like a lot of good first novels, Then We Came To The End is nothing if not audacious, and the use of the first-person plural voice is the most obvious manifestation of the daring of a young author. Knowing that he employed this device (since I think he pulled it off extremely well, I hesitate to call it a gimmick) in advance, I somewhat guiltiy confess that I went into the book waiting to see where he'd fuck it up; it's such a tricky thing to pull off, I was almost prepared for him to fail, and though I immediately found it a very engaging read, I turned every page wondering when he'd either abandon the voice or take a big pratfall because he insisted on keeping it in a situation where it didn't work.
It serves the narrative extremely well at most every turn, and, I think, entirely justifies Joshua Ferris' decision to use it. It adds a lot to the comedic elements, especially where they reflect the groupthink of a bunch of people who are used to approaching every problem through a very specific lens; one moment in particular, where the decent and human gesture of the company trying to put together a missing-child flyer for one of the employees' kidnapped daughter degenerates into an argument about typefaces and leading and kerning, gave me one of the best laughs I've gotten out of a book in ages. It also serves to heighten the drama, and to play up the strange collectivism of a workplace: since loss of the job is the only shared tragedy, the potential for it brings people closer together, while greater horrors—sickness, divorce, the loss of a loved one—are so individual they alienate.
Because the narrative voice works so well, and because it's so perfectly maintained throughout the book, like Tasha, I felt it was a bit of a cheat—not when it disappeared to tell Lynn's story, which was delicately and skillfully handled, but when that break was revealed to be an excerpt from Hank Neary's book. It all seemed a bit overly self-conscious, a more gimmicky and would-be clever choice than the first-person plural itself. Its metafictional quality was off-putting rather than expanding. It was especially frustrating, because Ferris was elsewhere so adept at taking moments that threatened to go off the rails and bringing them into line: the narrative voice itself, the question of whether or not Tom Mota would return to the office, Lynn Mason's cancer, and Joe Pope's character all could have been heavy-handed disasters, but he handled them all quite well.
There were only two moments where I felt the book jarred me out of its excellently crafted tone and mood, in a negative way. I'll talk about the other one later, but the revelation that Lynn's chapter was part of a book by Hank Neary was the other one. However, it did form the basis of the book's final chapter, which I otherwise found very appropriate and nicely done, right down to the very last sentence, which wrapped up the narrative device neatly, and reminded me a bit, stylistically at least, of the way To The White Sea ended.
Scott Tobias: The word “audacious” doesn’t even begin to describe Ferris’ decision to use first-person plural in his debut novel; there’s a temerity to it, as if he was begging critics to hit him for being too clever for his own good. And while I’ll admit that voice took some getting used to—though years of reading Gawker Media sites have softened the blow—it turns out to be a brilliant conceit, so much so that the book would be unthinkable without it. The “we” has been adequately described as the groupthink that permeates an office, where people spend most of their waking lives working together toward a common goal. But the deeper I got into Then We Came To The End, the more I started thinking of the “we” as a living organism—with Benny’s desk, Ground Zero for office gossip, serving as the nerve center—and the plague of unemployment as something like a cancer that had metastasized within that organism, knocking out vital functions while leaving the others to strain for survival. Observing their struggle is at once poignant and full of absurd humor, as they throw themselves into an impossible and ultimately illusory project (the pro-bono assignment to find the funny in breast cancer) in a sincere effort to save their jobs. (Or at least look busy.)
As for Lynn’s story, put me in Tasha and Leonard’s camp. Having that section revealed as part of Hank Neary’s book was the only time when Ferris struck me as being too clever for his own good, not least because I found it so affecting as is. I loved this opportunity to break from the collective voice and really discover Ferris’ gifts for portraiture; his depiction of Lynn as a middle-aged woman wholly devoted to work, at the expense of all other considerations (love, family, et al.) seemed right to me, as did her resistance to getting treatment. There are some touches, in retrospect, that seemed deliberately novelistic and that set us up for that twist at the end, specifically the sequence where Lynn’s some-time boyfriend takes her various places blindfolded in an attempt to calm her down and get her ready to check into the hospital. But then again, that relationship overall was quite moving, because she’s so surprised by his kindness and support, despite the lack of romantic reciprocation.
I read Ferris’ book after the initial wave of rave reviews when it came out in 2007 and liked it, but wasn’t bowled over. But like my fellows above, I was definitely impressed by the first-person-plural narration, which, while showy, is the kind of choice that sets you apart right away as a first-timer. Of course it’s contrived, but no more contrived than deciding to move the action in your novel backward in time, or telling your entire story in letters between characters.
I wasn’t much more comfortable this time around with it, because I was pretty comfortable the first time, but I could better appreciate how it operated and the way that, as the book progresses, each of those voices that are part of the office “We” peels off—subtly or obviously—into a defiant “I.” It sets up an interesting tension for readers: Who do you follow? With whom do you sympathize when previously you had seen everyone in one monolithic group? I remember after first read feeling a little bereft that there was no one “left” who was a hero or who was somehow untainted by the petty concerns of life. This time, I enjoyed that deliberate alienation of the reader and the reminder that the “We” of the title is bound by less than linguistically it represents itself.
Speaking of “we,” I think Donna and I are on the same page about the revelation of Lynn Mason’s story. I felt it called attention to the style of the rest of the book without taking me out of the narrative; the first time through, I thought it was a nifty twist. This time, I was a little more impatient with it but not enough to have it take me out of the book entirely.
You raise a good point, Ellen, about the question of who to follow and who to engage with. We'll get into that on Wednesday, when we talk about the book's characters, who we identify with, and why, among other things. But tomorrow: some thoughts on the book's storyline.