‘Then We Came to the End’: Why an office farce deserved to be a National Book Award finalist

At first glance, it looks like a clown at a bris.

The National Book Awards typically celebrate weighty and serious tomes about lives in reflection, marriages on the rocks, tragedies from which we must recover. Then, in 2007, along comes Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

Who let Steve Carrell and the cast of “The Office” into the clubhouse?

EndThen We Came to the End is an office comedy set in an advertising agency. In it, first-time author Ferris attacks inane corporate kabuki with absurdism as fierce as anything dished out by Catch-22. And though it looks out of place amid its fellow National Book Award nominees (including the eventual winner, the Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke), End earns its spot with some lively writing, deft observations of small moments, and something doleful beneath the yuks about how we humans face life’s futilities.

We liked him at first, very early on. Then one day Karen Woo says, “I don’t like Joe Pope,” and she gives us her reasons. She goes on and on about it for close to a half hour, a very spirited rant, until finally we had to excuse ourselves so we could get back to work. After that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind how Karen Woo felt about Joe Pope, and more than a few people agreed that she had a legitmate gripe — that if in fact the situation was as Karen reported it, Joe was not a likeable person at all. It’s tough to say now what that gripe actually was. Let’s see here … trying to remember … nope, not coming. Half the time we couldn’t remember three hours ago. Our memory in that place was not unlike that of a goldfish. Goldfish who took a trip every night in a small clear bag of water and then returned in the morning to their bowl.

You’ll notice that Ferris writes in the first-person plural. “We” do everything in this book, and at first this seems an arbitrary writer’s indulgence. But not only does the comedic rhythm of it start to grow on you, but Ferris offers up the world’s best justification for it in the back of his book (in my copy, at least): “Companies tend to refer to themselves in the first-person plural — in annual reports, corporate brochures, within meetings and internal memos … In Then We Came to the End, you see just who this “we” really is — a collection of messy human beings — stripped  of their glossy finish and eternal corporate optimism.”

And it really works. Ferris, who spent some time in an ad agency himself, captures the ridiculous minutiae in a workaday routine, such as this passage where gossipy gadfly Benny (there’s one in every office) makes a performance of telling a gaggle of co-workers his latest salacious tidbit:

We talked among ourselves until he returned. “Okay,” he said, coming into the room with a full mug and a trailing odor of stale coffee grounds. He sat down and the delicately webbed seat sank for him a little more than it did for the rest of us. He squared himself to his desk and said, “So who did I see this morning parked right outside the building but — what?” He stopped midsentence. He had something — “Where?” It was on the other cheek — we hoped to god he’d find it fast. He wiped his whiskerless face and looked down. “Doughnut glaze,” he said.

There were doughnuts? Benny’s story would have to wait for those of us wanting doughnuts. Those of us who’d already eaten, or who were watching their weight, or Amber Ludwig, who had just split open a brown banana and was already halfway through it, filling Benny’s office with its singular musk — we sat tight.

Ferris’ crew of misfits and misanthropes slumps through a business slowdown, worried about layoffs and looking busy. Their sole project is a pro bono campaign, the only criteria of which is that it makes breast cancer patients laugh. It’s a vague assignment, which motivates them only vaguely. As their paranoia mounts and their productivity falls, Ferris switches gears mid-book to focus on just one of the “we.” Lynn, the domineering firm partner overseeing these chuckleheads, has a completely illogical meltdown as she faces medical treatment for her own breast cancer. (Oh! See, it really does deserve a National Book nomination after all.)

The book builds a surprising tension as the wee little lives inside the cubicle spill over into each other’s personal space. After a surprising snap from a major character, the office is left shaken and changed. But even so, those same wee little lives find a way of succumbing to the inescapable gravitational pull of the corporate grouse. It’s just so easy to bitch about things, isn’t it?:

The rest of us would have liked some time off. They only gave us that Friday afternoon, which we took gladly, but we, too, suffered from stress and all sorts of disorders and would have liked more than an afternoon. Some of us said Friday afternoon, wow, behold the generosity. But others tried to see it from their perspective. If they didn’t win new business, they were screwed. And who did they screw when they got screwed? You betcha.

As someone who didn’t really care for Catch-22 (I eagerly await your letter bombs and charges of blasphemy), I found Then We Came to the End to be a true and trenchant view of life’s absurdity, equal parts silly and insightful. Maybe that’s because I know nothing about the irrationality of the foxhole, but everything about the irrationality of the cubicle.

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