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Friday, May 01, 2009

Then We Came to the End

Corporate America is filled with cubicle dwellers and, if you are not one those now, it is very likely that you have been one sometime in the past. Some of us finally escape the dreaded cubicle jungle for good; others of us spend large chunks of our lives there. Then We Came to the End is the story of one such place, a Chicago ad agency suffering the steady drip of office layoffs due to the 2001 economic downturn. Joshua Ferris, himself a former member of Cubicle America, takes a tricky first person plural approach to tell this company’s story and his collective “we voice” makes it easy for cubicle veterans to identify with what he describes.

Ferris so successfully describes the office setting and its daily goings-on that some office veterans might cringe when he hits a little to close to home for comfort. This is an agency filled with people much like the ones you work with every day. You like most of them well enough, and even consider one or two of them to be good friends, but you almost never see them outside the office setting. Some of them have little habits and mannerisms that drive you nuts, some of them you find attractive, and you might even feel threatened by one or two others who always seem ready to stab you in the back if it means a move up the corporate ladder for them.

As the layoffs continue, surviving agency workers feel more and more pressure to look busy even as their actual workloads shrink to almost nothing. Rumors and speculation become the order of the day, and little clusters of whispering employees gather to discuss old rumors - and to send a few new ones out into the workplace themselves. They may not know each other very well but the employees have strong opinions about each other based on what they observe at the office. As office-mates disappear one-by-one and the company looks more and more unlikely to survive its downward spin, personal grudges, petty dislikes, and old rivalries become more and more important.

One laid-off copywriter sneaks back into the office and even attends meetings in an attempt to prove his worth to the agency. Another refuses to admit that he suffers depression but begins stealing prescription medicine from a co-worker’s desk. Others prefer to pretend that it is business as usual and they carry on with their office love affairs, both real and imagined. As their numbers dwindle, those still on the job become more and more frantic and strange things begin to happen. Workers raid newly vacated offices to find better chairs or office doodads for themselves; some fired employees tend return like bad pennies; and others begin to crack in their own rather unique ways.

Joshua Ferris put me back in a world I personally experienced not that long ago. His use of satirical dark humor to describe the office trauma in Then We Came to the End sets just the right tone for the story he tells. Ferris also has a knack for perfectly describing even the most minor of his characters, as he does, for instance, in the case of one loner payroll clerk: “Her office was a firetrap of put-off filing. Sandy had gray hair and wore one of those ribbed finger condoms that gives one speed in the sport of accounting.” (Hey, I think I know that woman.)

Despite my flashbacks, this was a fun book for me to read and I recommend it to anyone who has been there and is not afraid to go back one more time for a little visit.

Rated at: 4.0

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