"Then We Came To The End" is Joshua Ferris' first novel. In many ways it is a magnificent novel. In many ways, he captures the feeling of working in today's office. OR maybe, I should caution readers and say, in working in the office of "near yesterday". Because the office of today is becoming another beast. In the book, Joshua Ferris, very capably describes the ups and downs of office and cubicle life, the meetings, the coffee breaks, the gossip, the lay-offs, the angst, the inter-office romance, the unrequited love for coworkers, the dreams of coworkers, those who make it and those who don't.
A lot of people have described this first novel by Joshua Ferris as a comedy. Personally, I don't agree with this description. I am more keen to compare this novel to a Greek Tragedy:
"a form of drama defined by Aristotle characterized by seriousness and dignity and involving a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune." Additionally, "Aristotle's definition can include a change of fortune from bad to good as in the Eumenides, but he says that the change from good to bad as in Oedipus Rex is preferable because this effects pity and fear within the spectators.) According to Aristotle, "the structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity--for that is peculiar to this form of art."In more simpler terms, the characters in this novel, undergo a change in fortune, not necessarily because of their mistakes, but maybe amplified by their mistakes. Each and every character also has a unique way of dealing with his or her situation and with the consequences of their actions. If they make mistakes in response to a layoff, what is the action that they take to deal with it? If the mistake was with the partner in the firm in which they are employed, how does that affect their livelihoods, and how do they deal with that?
Certainly, seeing people in the daily routine of getting coffee after getting to the office and then proceeding to waste the next two hours on minutia is funny -- heck, I recognize myself there, because I am guilty of that. I have done that, a lot of times in times of high stress. Seeing people afraid of a diminutive woman (less than 5'2") who is their boss can also be funny -- what can cause people to fear someone so much? And of course, the extraordinary response of one individual to being let go, who continues to go into the office, bypassing security, day after day, to work on a project with constantly changing guidelines and goals, is seriously funny. But we can all relate with that I think. If you've ever been laid-off, and maybe thought it was unfair, who among you hasn't thought, if I could only prove my worth to them, make them see what I can do on this project, maybe they would change their minds.
But it's not as simple as that. And neither is this book, this novel. In the end, this novel is a book within a book. I am not sure from where, but I get the feeling, that Joshua Ferris is writing about Lynn, the senior partner, the intimidating figure in this novel who lays people off, but who in the end is scared by "breast cancer". There is a section between Part 1 and Part 2 of the book called 'The Thing to Do and the Place to Be'. It's the one section of the book that deals with only one person, one character in the whole book. It's about Lynn. That is why I suspect, the book, might have originally been intended to be written about Lynn and then evolved into much more than that. But even if that's not the case, this section, elevates this book to a very high level. It is such a wonderful piece of writing, it gives you such depth and understanding into a fictional character that you begin to understand her, you begin to feel how she feels, and how many others in her position might feel.
That is high praise indeed. Hank Neary, another character in the book, writes about Lynn in his fictional novel. (He's one of Lynn's employees who is always working on his novel, and finally, like the actual book's author, gets published). Later he reads to a crowd some of his words, as the novel comes full circle. And the story, like life, comes full circle. At this point, I will not reveal any more of the plot, and I have only given some vague hints about the office politics, the office threats, the office romances, the rocky relationships, and all the other things that make living life so extra-ordinary. I wonder if this novel in a way is also a tribute to our post-9/11 bout with soul-searching and the fear of mortality. Because in a sense, the characters fear everything that happens to them, yet revel in the magnificence of living, the essence of being. That is what makes life bearable. That we're not on this journey alone, but there are others on it. And sure, some of them have their quirks, and we talk about them, and gossip about them, and yet we also drink coffee with them, and occasionally we go out and have some drinks with them.
In the end, I found this novel extremely satisfying as it recognizes all the things it means to be human. And that is high praise indeed. This is my first 5 star review of the year!!! (In the past, I used to give such highly praised books one big star).
I highly recommend it.