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Office politics, cubed

Then We Came to the End A Novel Joshua Ferris Little, Brown: 390 pp., $23.99

March 11, 2007|Darcy Cosper | Darcy Cosper contributes to publications including Bookforum and Time Out New York.

JOSHUA FERRIS' deceptively modest debut novel, "Then We Came to the End," opens as the halcyon days of the dot-com decade are coming to a close for the staff of a large, unnamed Chicago advertising agency. The carefree age of pushing one another down the hall really fast in swivel chairs has given way to a considerably less pleasant period of corporate downsizing. This new era inspires covetousness of others' office furniture and ever more artful ways of looking busy while kibitzing with and speculating on the fate of one's co-workers.

The main action, such as it is, unfolds over the course of four spring days. During this time, the agency's employees, a likable assortment of office archetypes, debate the likelihood that a recently laid-off and rather high-strung colleague will return seeking vengeance; conjecture about the veracity of a rumor that their much-admired, highly intimidating supervisor is dying of breast cancer; and work on a pro-bono awareness campaign for the same illness -- although what they mean by "work" is procrastination elevated to an art form:

"We opened a new Quark document, or took out our pencils.... If a stray paper clip happened to be lying around we were likely to bend it out of shape. Some of us knew how to turn a misshapen paper clip into a projectile that could hit the ceiling. If our attention was drawn to the ceiling, we usually recounted our tiles. When we returned to our computer screens, we erased whatever false starts we found there, suddenly embarrassed by them. We had the feeling that our bad ideas were probably worse than the bad ideas of others. Those of us who worked on sketch pads were engaged by that point in the great unsung pastime of American corporate life, the wadded paper toss. This, more than anything, was what 'billable hour' implied."

"Then We Came to the End" is full of such brilliant miniature treatises -- on the experience of time ("We had visceral, rich memories of dull, interminable hours"), the hierarchies of complaint, the meaning of lunch -- all heartfelt and delivered in solemn deadpan, constituting a veritable poetics of the office.

The novel is narrated primarily in the first-person plural -- not the noble, empowered We the People, but the we-the-undifferentiated masses, as suggested by the book's epigraph, lines from Emerson's essay "The American Scholar" on the inhumanity of being "reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong."

Filtered through this mass, the novel's narrative comes to us at multiple removes; an interaction between two characters is told to a third, who relates the conversation to a fourth, who tells it to we-the-narrator, who passes it on to we-the-readers, by which time it may be warped beyond recognition. Here, "there was no such thing as rumor. There was fact, and there was what did not come up in conversation." Ferris' very structure poses the question: With so many subjective narrators of dubious reliability, what might be "fact" and who can tell the difference?

For all the personal details these people amass and exchange, what looks like intimacy is often only proximity. We are too easily rendered anonymous to one another and to ourselves in the capitalist landscape of cubicles. "You don't know what's in my heart," one of Ferris' character tells another.

The novel doesn't suggest that the collective is invariably problematic, however, but that it becomes so when it obliterates or otherwise does violence to the individual. And unlike many other critics of corporate culture, Ferris acknowledges the collective's possibilities for humanity and compassion, which renders the novel pleasantly low on snarky righteousness.

This is not to say that Ferris doesn't go for the kill, in his own effacing way. In a marvelous corrective of free-market America's willful misinterpretation of Emerson's ideas, he uses a simple office antagonism between a self-possessed middle manager and an aggressively nonconformist "creative" to dramatize a confrontation between true Emersonian self-reliance and its commodified, fin-de-siecle evil twin, the corporate rebel -- that walking, self-congratulatory paradox in Paul Smith suit and Vans, blissfully ignorant of the impossibility of authentic rebellion within the vast, individualism-annihilating context of the corporation.

Thus Ferris signals the scale of his true ambitions -- and does so too with the novel's title. The last line of his penultimate chapter, "Then we came to the end of another bright and tranquil summer," echoes "Americana," Don DeLillo's debut novel, which opens with the line, "Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year." (Another of "Americana's" lines offers a temptation to which Ferris gleefully succumbed: "One might easily be inspired to twist the thumb of a famous first sentence.")

Published in 1971, "Americana" begins in a similarly stultifying corporate environment, the executive offices of a television network where work is avoided, paranoia about job security is rampant and one irked employee circulates obscure, hyper-literate memos -- all of which receive homage in Ferris' novel.

This world is closely and darkly observed by the anguished scion of an ad man, who soon abandons his privileged post and sets off on a road trip into the dark heart of America, where he is forced to reckon, as heroes are, with his own dark heart.

Although Ferris' vision is less grim, it is no less grave; what looks at first glance like a sweet-tempered satire of workplace culture is revealed upon closer inspection to be a very serious novel about, well, America. It may even be, in its own modest way, a great American novel. *

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