Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Poor Joshua Ferris. The classy contemporary writers of literary fiction who've blurbed his novel Then We Came to the End have compared him to Joseph Heller ("Then We Came to the End is the Catch-22 of the business world…" says Jim Shepard) and Peter DeVries ("…penned with a Devriesian sharpness…" according to Katharine Weber); they proclaim, "This is a novel, by God!" (Geoffrey Wolff) and "Awfully funny." (Nick Hornby). Geoff Dyer even observes that "It almost made me wish I had a job." What a burden for a first time novelist! Even if he's got a good book--which Joshua Ferris certainly does here--what lofty expectations to set for a prospective reader. I'm happy to say that, although I would not compare this novel to the work of Joseph Heller nor that of Peter DeVries (not as cynical as the one nor as cranky as the other), and although I wouldn't call it awfully funny, it was--as Geoffrey Wolff says--"a novel, by God!" And a damned good one.

Then We Came to the End is composed of three sections. Ferris employs, in the first and third of these, an unusual and somewhat risky narrative voice. He uses the first person plural to create a narrator who is both of the action--"We were fractious and overpaid," the book begins. "Our mornings lacked promise."--and above it, as an omniscient presence. This device, which for the first fifty pages or so felt cold, detached and gimmicky, warmed, as the book progressed, becoming intimate and inviting, and as the reader got into the minds and lives of the characters she began to feel included as a part of the action.  

The successes and tragedies of these characters, from the insignificant--squabbling with the wannabe-supply-sergeant of an office coordinator who has her own system of serial numbers to track furniture and ensure that it stays in the office to which it's been assigned, to the heart-rending--the bottomless grief of the mother of a murdered child, who has to pass the giant billboard advertising her child as missing every evening on her way home from work, because the vendor who owns the space doesn't have a new ad to place there--slowly become the reader's own successes and tragedies. And when, in the short (thirty- four pages) second part of the book the narration switches to the more traditional third person omniscient, and concentrates on just one character, it just, well, feels right.

Then We Came to the End has been compared to Office Space and The Office, and there is some validity to those comparisons, such as, say, a recognition of the inherent absurdity of spending forty hours a week in intimate contact with complete strangers. But as good as the aforementioned pieces of film are, Joshua Ferris's novel is that much better. It might not make you "wish you had a job" as it did Geoff Dyer (after all, who really wants to work in a big, soul-sucking office?), but it will certainly make you glad you've taken the time to read.



Vampires and Tofu said...

Great review, gonna have to dig this out from the bottom of the TBR pile =)

Rebecca Glenn said...

Great--I hope you like it! After I wrote my review I checked out the other reviews on LibraryThing. Although there were a lot of positive ones, there were also a goodly number of reviewers who were annoyed by the odd narrative voice--found it precious or pretentious or MFA-programish.

Whatever, I say, I loved it.

Milo James Fowler said...

Just finished reading THE UNNAMED by Ferris (his sophomore effort) and was impressed by it. Plan to check out this one, too. Nice review!

Rebecca Glenn said...

Thanks, Milo! I actually have my copy of The Unnamed and it's queued up. I have a few things to read first, but I plan on getting to it soon.

jewelknits said...

This book sounds wonderful! I love this:

Geoff Dyer even observes that "It almost made me wish I had a job.

I like different types of narrative voices; I usually initially have a somewhat cranky time getting into it (the case for me with Room), but once I've gone through a few pages or more, it's as though I make the mental adjustment necessary and the flow begins.

Thanks for a great review!

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries