Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. This is the final post about Joshua Ferris'Then We Came To The End. Watch this space—at 3:30 p.m. some of the staff will participate in a live online discussion of the book. An interview with Ferris will appear in the interview section tomorrow.
So what's left to discuss? I've thrown out my questions for you. Do any of you have questions you think we should all address before the livechat today?
Some of the questions I had about the book (particularly its mix of breezy humor and high seriousness, and what I perceived as a class issue in how some of the characters were portrayed), I'll defer to when my interview with Joshua Ferrris appears on Friday. I think he addressed them to my satisfaction, and I'm interested to hear what you all have to say about the way he answers those questions. Overall, I was quite impressed with the book; I enjoyed it a great deal, and it carried more emotional weight and literary heft than I expected based on early descriptions.
One thing I did want to bring up, though, was the jarring moments I hinted at on Monday. One of these was the moment near the end of the book, where the title actually appears in the text and the authorial we makes a fleeting mention of September 11th. This struck me as not exactly exploitative as such — after all, Ferris doesn't make much of it, and the timeframe of the novel is about right — but the mere fact that he mentions it without going into any detail seems like he only brought it up to add a little tragic heft to the book without really earning it. Okay, so, yeah, that happened: what does it have to do with anything else that's taken place in the book?
The other moment was the fate of Tom Mota; it's revealed that, after being released from prison, he joins the military, becomes a sniper, and dies in Afghanistan. Not only is this a pretty unlikely series of events, but it likewise jarred me out of the narrative; it seems like it wandered in from another book, and while it seems as if Ferris meant it to be transformational — poor old luckless Tom Mota broke out of his self-loathing rut and became something like a hero — it instead comes off as a bit mawkish and, like the September 11th reference, unearned. Did these moments bother anyone else?
My final thought might be related to Leonard's in a way, though I'm not going to answer his excellent questions directly. It has to do with the title and with the overarching temporal setting of the book: the extended death throes of a business. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I found that state of suspended animation — a persistent vegetative state in which life slowly ebbs away despite all the complicated interventions that have to be performed as if there were still a chance at recovery — a perversely fun place to be. It was a place where people had little to do and so spent time finding ways to spend time. That's a creative environment, if a desperate one. I like going places I haven't been before in fiction, and this was a place both familiar (the cubicle farm, the office full of "creatives" doing "creative") and strange (the last days of a dying planet).
So I think my favorite moment in the book is when it actually does end, and the company breaks up, almost between chapters. There's that appearance of the title in the text that Leonard mentions, but I wasn't jarred by it in a bad way. Instead, it was like the fantasy of eternal life or the hope for a miraculous cure was finally allowed to dissipate. Something akin to the moment where you leave the theater blinking and remembering the other errands you've got to run. Only then do you remember how unreal was the world you inhabited for the duration of the fiction. I really got the sadness of that moment, because I was reluctant to leave, but I appreciated the honesty of including it the way Ferris did.
I wasn't a fan of Mota's death either—in Ferris's defense, this kind of on-the-edge-of-real storytelling can be very tricky to pull off, and I think killing Tom was just him giving in to the impulse to tie off a neat conclusion. Joe Pope's disappearance was more interesting, though, because it came closest to achieving what I think Ferris tried off and on to achieve throughout the novel, the way people can move in and out of your life and be desperately important one day and invisible the next, and how the workplace just intensifies that.
I definitely want to stress that I enjoyed this; one of the difficulties of trying to clarify my opinion in discussion is that I often find myself taking stronger positions than I really feel comfortable taking. Despite my criticisms, this was a clever, funny, and occasionally moving novel, and I'm happy I got the chance to read it.
That said, I'm wondering if I would've gotten more out of this if I was more familiar with the environment it describes. My work-life has been fairly sheltered, since I've been doing the same basic job in a college library setting for nearly a decade now. While there are the occasional intrigues and scandals at the place where I work, I definitely don't have any first-hand experience with the "we" Ferris is describing. It's a concept that I'm really only familiar with through other fictions, and that may be why I was sometimes disappointed that this book didn't have more teeth to it. Or more impact, or more of a reason for being. It's a well-considered collection of pretty good ideas, but it's just well-written enough to make me wish it was more. This may be because I didn't get the emotional validation of connecting with that world, and it's also unfair to expect something that does all right on its own terms to be somehow aim higher. I think, if I hadn't been reading this for the book club, I would've been mildly satisfied, but this isn't going to stick with me for very long. The best I can say for it is that it makes me very interested in Ferris' new novel, because this strikes me as the work of someone who's just coming into their own—full of possibility, but not all that big on fulfillment.
The way Tom Mota was dealt with bothered me too; it felt so jarring to me that it almost sounded like a rumor a member of the office would have made up and spread around rather than a likely path. Maybe I’m not giving him enough leeway to change, but it didn’t seem probable.
I’ve got a larger question I would like to throw out there: We’ve talked a lot in this discussion about Then We Came To The End as a novel about work and the modern office. Ferris’ novel is neither the first nor the last to depict the cubicle culture at work but already, the distance between the mid-90s time frame in which Then We Came To The End takes place and office conventions of the past decade is growing. If this were a sub-sub-genre, capturing this period in history in which most Americans belonged to the cubicle culture, what other books belong in there with …Came To The End? (The two that spring to mind for me are Microserfs and Ed Park’s debut Personal Days.) And what are this genre’s antecedents?
Special assignment for Zack, since you liked the book slightly less than the rest of us and mentioned how your personal experience was not reflected in it (but open to everyone to answer): Is there a novel that better captures your work experience that you want to share?
Nah, I don't really think there is—and I'm not complaining about that! My job is pretty dull, and I'm not actually looking for it to be accurately represented on the page. I'm guessing that Ferris does capture what a lot of people feel at their jobs, and that's impressive; my comment was more that, since this isn't really a world I can relate to directly, I may be missing a certain amount of empathy here.