Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Then We Came to the End: Beginning

Welcome to our October book discussion. This month we will discuss the acclaimed debut novel by Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End. Questions and observations will be posted a few times a week, and your responses are greatly appreciated.

One could argue that Then We Came to the End (TWCCTE) is written in the tradition of other “office novels.” For me, it brought to mind the work of Douglas Coupland – Shampoo Planet, Microserfs, and sections of Generation X. Critics have compared TWCCTE to Americana by Don DeLillo, and in fact the title of TWCCTE is taken directly from Americana, Delillo's own debut novel.

Have you read other "office literature," and how did the experience of reading this book compare? How is Then We Came to the End similar to these other novels? How is it different?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

The novel delivers truth with irony and humor....outstanding achievement...Ferris's education in literature and writing arts has been put to great use...

An excerpt from the novel...

"Layoffs were upon us. They had been rumored for months, but now it was official. If you were lucky, you could sue. If you were black, aged, female, Catholic, Jewish, gay, obese, or physically handicapped, at least you had grounds."

The drop-of-the-hint lawsuit mentality that is so rampant in america, the silent paradoxical obsession with skin color, appearance, greed and creed...Ferris leaves no abomination/denomination and superiority/inferiority complex untouched...

Lila said...

I like your observation. On one hand, TWCTTE's "we" worry about seeming racist, but they have no qualms about putting a fake bloody "scalp" on Benny Shassburger's desk. Do you think Ferris, through his chorus of office workers, provides a realistic depiction of people's fear of being racist/ obsession with race?

Anonymous said...

Could Ferris's first book be one of the most relevant books at this time in America. The current financial and moral crisis depitcs what Marx long ago predicted. Rewarding greed is not the solution, dear Republicans. Goodness, education, justice, equality of opportunity, and transparency is. Where there is id (reptilian brain), there has to be Superego (oversight).

The more things change, the more they remain the same. What's wrong with human nature. To understand the hidden dark side of Capitalism, there is a definite need for more transparency on the corporate side, more oversight from the government side and more importantly, more literacy on the peoples side. Democracy was supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people but now it should be redefined as democracy is of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. Its always the ordinary tax, rent and mortgage paying people who become victims of the greed and power games elites play. Anything new under the sun.

Anonymous said...

What literacies? I respectfully disagree. Developing literacies for an objective understanding of complex political and economic phenomena require that, on the one hand, parents, teachers, schools, media and libraries offer the neccessary conditions and resources. On the other hand, the individuals need to have the desire to acquire those literacies. Both factors are weak otherwise the world would not be in the mess that it is. The tragedy is that our racial, political and economic affiliations seriously limit how open and objective can we become in the one and only life we have to live. That is why corporations, politicians and paid pundits on all sides are always able to manipulate publics to their own narrow self-interest the world over. It is not without reason that monstrous amounts of money are spent on political advertisements not to mention war.

Melissa said...

I wouldn't disagree with the above comment, but I think that Ferris's advertising agency is in a somewhat remote circle of hell (i.e. farther from the flames). Most of the characters in TWCTTE are genuinely trying to do the right thing in their lives, and advertising -- while all about selling stuff -- at least falls within the field of creativity. (Sorry for still being negative and judgmental about the profession, but bear in mind that this is coming from a public librarian.) The "greed" mentioned above doesn't so much guide these characters, I don't think.

Joe Pope and Genevieve and Lynn (even the Lynn besides the one who's humanized in the mid-section of the book) are among the characters that have integrity and kind hearts. (But I would have rooted for them to get out of advertising and into something better serving of their talents.) Yes, I think Ferris's depiction of people's (especially white people) fears of racism ring true.

I can't think offhand of any other office fiction to compare this book to, and I still haven't read anything by Douglas Coupland, but I was thinking about The Virgin Suicides as I read this. It's the only other book I'm familiar with that uses the first person plural narration. Great device, necessarily limited in its literary appearances.

Lila said...

Re: Melissa's comment - it's interesting that you say most people in the ad agency depicted are trying to "do the right thing in their lives." It's true that "we" have a conscience, they have families to support and love, and loyalty to each other in some cases. But they also flagrantly fritter away their time at the office, wasting the money and time of the company. This continued to bug me as I read the book - perhaps it hit particularly close to home for someone such as myself, who works in front of a computer for large swaths of time during the day. I feel guilty when "the Internet" lures me from my work. So maybe I resent the glib, guiltless abuse of freedom by the employees here.

I can recommend another office novel, if you're interested: Fear and Trembling: A Novel by Amelie Nothomb. A good one, and a quick read. But I still highly recommend Generation X above all - there is really no book like it. Get thee to some Douglas Coupland!

Finally, The Virgin Suicides. Yes, that's the only novel I can think of that uses the unique first person plural narration. I read that book several times. In both books, the "we" perspective is so odd, kind of jarring. But in a good way. It creates an intimacy within anonymity. It's interesting to think how TWCTTE would be different with a more convention narration style.

Iva said...

In comparing TWCTTE to Fear & Trembling, the latter depicted a painful office experience where it was easy to blame a different culture and language for the problem in communication. There was plenty of communication in TWCTTE--they actually spent all their time discussing the others motivations or creating absurd activities such as moving chairs. I do think that there is a universality to these behaviors in offices, schools and libraries and the book rang very true to (work)life.

Anonymous said...

In comparing TWCTTE to Fear & Trembling, a painful office experience was portrayed but in the later a different culture and communication could be blamed. In TWCTTE there was perhaps too much communication, i.e. switching chairs, spying, and constantly trying to figure out co-workers behavior. But the beauty of both of these novels was the ability to identify with these people as they exist in any workplace.

jesse said...

I was considering picking this up when it was named one of the New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2007. I nixed the idea because the travails of advertisers during the heady dot com days did not seem very compelling. I mean: Isn't the AMC show Mad Men doing enough to glorify an industry that exists to coax Americans to live beyond their means?

So I was pleasantly surprised at how poignant and human this book is so far. Ferris really has some devastating observations about people, and especially how they interact in an office.

The "office novel" description seems to be a fair one. I haven't read any of the other novels listed, but what is striking is how few there are when you consider how much time so many people spend in offices. For such a near-universal experience it has been pretty overlooked in our culture. When it is done right, the payoff is huge: Office Space is a cult comedy, The Office is beloved in both its British and American incarnations. TWCTTE works because it perfectly captures the absurdity of office life, and we don't get to read about that very often.

Lila said...

Re: Jesse's comment.
My next discussion post relates to your observation about "The Office" tv show. Stay tuned!