ThenWe Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s excellent debut, follows in the tradition of office novels by devoting the vast majority of its pages topeople who are fed up with their every-day white-collar work.
It is set at theturn of the current century, when the implosion of the dot-com economy isclaiming collateral victims down the fluorescent-paneled halls of a Chicagoadvertising firm. Clients are fleeing, projects are drying up and management isfiringpeople as they see fit. The layoffs come withoutwarning and — in keeping with good, brutal legal practice —with no rationale as to why any person was let go.In the midst of this crisis, theagency receives a pro bono assignment from a mysterious client, a breast-cancerawareness group with no detectable presence on the Internet or elsewhere. Therequest is enormouslydifficult: an ad that will make breast-cancer sufferers laugh about theirdisease.
(The assignment becomes more fraught, and suspicious, when a rumorbegins to circulate that Lynn Mason, the employees’ reserved, arch supervisor,has breast cancer herself.) The staff members complain about the campaign and mock it— and above all, work on it desperately, in hope of being the one to knock itout of the park. “We all had the same prayer: please let it be me.”However, about halfway through thebook, Ferris adds a thoughtful, less cynical twist when he takes us out of theoffice and home with Lynn, who is also struggling. Her problems are much moreserious; typically, though, as soon as we’re back inside and chained to ourdesks, they fade in the shock of Marcia Dwyer’s new haircut and the totallyweird way Janine Gorjanc’s been acting lately. But Lynn, with her quietconfidence, embodies and articulates the fear of the axe in a way herterror-stricken employees can only fumble at.
It’s hard to work out, in the end, whetherFerris’s novel is funny or sad. It’s certainly absurd, and very entertaining.And it hums with the suppressed emotions of colleagues forcedto interact professionally in an unnatural, stressful environment – anger,lust, envy, boredom, contempt, sometimes even love.