Then We Came To The End: thoughts on plot and unfolding
I ran way long in the previous discussion-starter, so I’ll keep it short here. How did you all relate to Then We Came To The End’s plot? As I said previously, I got surprisingly caught up in the story—not so much wondering who would stay and who would go, but largely in wondering what that “end” of the title was. I thought Ferris did an admirable bit of fakery with the Tom Mota storyline, among others—for a while, it really seemed to me that the end of the office because of firings or the company going out of business was going to be a red herring, and the system was actually going to break down because Tom was going to come in and shoot everyone. Or that half the office would succumb to breakdowns and personal crises of various types, from Amber’s unexpected pregnancy to Carl’s depression and pharmaceutical abuse to Chris Yop disintegrating over his chair issues. Did you think there was too much melodrama in all this business? Is it meant to be seen seriously, or comedically? What else did you get out of the storyline?
Oh, there's melodrama. But I like melodrama. While almost every storyline was ordinary as dirt—illicit office romance, speculation about personal life, death, and illness, fear of workplace violence—that seemed exactly right. The office is a melodramatic place precisely because it's so mundane. You go there every day, you spend a third of your life there, you suffer through its Sisyphean repetition, and therefore every scrap of Real Life feels unbelievably exciting… and frightening. It's hard to believe that anything can break the spell of lather, rinse, repeat, power on in the morning, shut down in the evening. The plot felt like a series of the stories you hear hanging out over somebody's cubicle wall, seasoned with the sad inevitability of a dying organization. (Have you been to the official website for the book? I'm not ashamed to say that I got a little sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I moused over a cubicle on the floor plan and "Unoccupied" popped up.) It's a necessary weakness of Ferris' methodology, I think, that everybody gets a quirk, as Tasha enumerates above. But I think the novelist holds it together with the Joe Pope character, and with the moments when people's quirks become unsustainable in the face of a larger drama.
I think the book could've used more distinctive melodrama. It makes sense that there needs to be some mundanity, since part of the point of the novel (I'm guessing) is that office environments are essentially universal, but my favorite sections were the weirder ones, like Benny and his totem pole (or his quest to speak in Godfather to everyone), or Carl's dalliance with mood medicine, because they didn't develop in expected ways, and they made the narration more alive, and less a sort of detached, "Gosh, all these people are tremendously silly, aren't they?" snideness. Tom Mota was my favorite character, because he was so tricky to pin down—he was a creep in some ways, but the sequence where he paints over the billboard with Janine's dead daughter on it was really lovely and sad. I was briefly worried that Ferris had done himself in when Tom came back and started shooting people, because End could not have survived a killing spree. But the paint-balling was a smart, memorable touch, and kept that live-wire feeling without making Tom either too hard or too sentimental. I wanted more sense of place here, I wanted some stronger connection to these people—the deaths at the end didn't mean a whole lot to me, and while that could be an intentional attempt to mimic the realism of an actual workplace, the way you can be attached to co-workers without really caring about them, I think it undercut the ending. Mild melancholy can be pleasant enough, but I wasn't satisified with it here.
I felt from the beginning that Ferris was setting out to not just establish, but portray for us the eternal quality of work, the gamesmanship we bring to it just to keep sane in a world in which people no longer have even the most abstract stake in what they spend their lives doing. The way he deliberately shies away from bringing any real closure to the individual stories, the way the characters are—in the eyes of the collective voice of the narrative, if not in the eyes of the reader—a collection of quirks and circumstances: Those are illustrations of how institutions necessarily reduce people to something less than what they are. If the melodrama felt forced at times, it was because people in these situations invent their own dramas just to stave off boredom. I suspected early on that Tom wasn't really going to shoot up the place, because that would disrupt its oppressive sameness, but at the same time, Ferris made a nice attempt at keeping us guessing, the way people really do about disruptions to the workplace. Any massive interruption, whether it's a lottery win or a spree killing, keeps you from admitting to the horrid inevitability of the stretched-out days, where there's really only one way for things to end, and that's with you leaving. (In a burst of pathetically lame cosmic irony, I finished Then We Came To The End exactly one day before it was announced at my day job that our division would be closing for good in three months, and we would all be unemployed. Naturally, it's boosted the collective cameraderie, since disaster is, if nothing else, a shared experience. And naturally, I briefly resented the book until I realized that the joke was really on me.)
There’s definitely melodrama in this book, but it sneaks up on you, stretching but not breaking the expectations of what you would find in an ordinary office. Leonard, I like what you said about people inventing their own dramas to stave off boredom. Occasionally I felt that it was a little piled on, but the benefit of having so many different characters is that you can play their own melodramas off against each other for ironic effect—think of Jim Jackers pondering his bizarre run-in with Lynn Mason at the hospital and what it might say about her health, before becoming distracted by Benny’s totem-pole dilemma. (Or in the other direction, Carl and Marilynne bickering before he’s stopped cold thinking about Janine Gorjanc’s ordeal.) But I wondered as I was reading it whether the final chapter, five years later, was in Ferris’ original draft or was the idea of one of his editors. I think it belongs, and it rounds out what it can of the threads of storylines we’ve just put down. At the same time, I had the reverse issue others had with the Lynn Mason chapter—I didn’t expect it to be real, and I read through it with a gimlet eye waiting for the pullback, the “Just kidding!” Having read it a few more times, I think it’s a lovely coda, but maybe a little too lovely for everything it has to summarize.
As many of you have mentioned above, every character in the book gets his or her own little subplot and resolution, though Ferris’ collective voice gives the book a greater freedom to throw out little anecdotes and observations about office life without having to tie them to plot. (In that way, it’s like Dilbert, Office Space, and other such cubical comedies.) But no one has brought up what would have to count as the big, overarching plotline: The pro-bono breast cancer campaign. This is, after all, the only project that’s come trickling through the office, and the one that everyone’s ostensibly working on, whether they’re obsessing over the impossibility of finding levity in the subject or merely looking busy enough to seem invaluable to a company that’s circling the drain. All of which leads to one of my favorite moments in the book, when all the remaining editorial staff pile into Lynn’s office for a meeting on the breast cancer campaign, and she essentially tells them to drop it and move on to another assignment. And just like that, a couple hundred pages of fussing gets dispatched within a sentence or two, underlining the meaninglessness of their work with a swift, casual wave of the boss’ hand.