Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
OK, here's the thing. This book's got it all: comedy, tragedy, office politics, creepy corporate culture, advertising weenies, smart social commentary, and the ever-looming bad guy: getting laid off. It's got some great hooks, too, especially the way author Ferris cleverly uses the editorial "we" throughout the book to make the first-person narrator the collective office worker. It's funny and it works. Having suffered all of these tricky aspects of American life, having worked in an office most of my career, having been manhandled by the dot-com bust, and having been laid off twice – after suffering months'-long paranoia that the moment could come at any time - I should adore this book. But I kinda, sorta, just … liked it.
Maybe I'm asking for too much. Maybe I think Ferris didn't really quite capture the depravity of the workplace the way Richard Yates did in Revolutionary Road. Or capture the humor of the office the way the Ricky Gervais did in The Office. Or maybe I'm too close to the subject matter and can think of situations that are actually funnier than the situations Ferris describes.
There are definitely some classic bits. I love the way Karen Woo constantly puts the smackdown on Jim Jackers' ever-present idiocy:
"After he was arrested, Joe continued, 'Carl came to my office and showed me an e-mail Tom had sent him. It said that Tom was stopping by the office that day because he wanted to talk to me. I went to see him because I was curious. What did he want to talk about?'
'And what was it?' asked Benny.
'Ralph Waldo Emerson,' said Joe.
'Ralph Waldo Emerson?'
'Is he the guy with the pond?' asked Jim
'You're thinking of Henry David Thoreau,' said Hank
'Jim is thinking of the Budweiser frogs,' said Karen.'"
And there are some good lines about the predator/prey relationship between advertisers and consumers, bosses and workers, corporations and human beings:
"The trick was to play loose with words… When we said, 'Don't miss out on these great savings!' we really meant we gotta unload these fuckers fast. 'No-Fee Rewards' meant prepare to pay out the ass. Words and meaning were almost always at odds with us. We knew it, you knew it, they knew it, we all knew it. The only words that ever meant a goddamn were, 'We're really very sorry about this, but we're going to have to let you go.'
Maybe the baggage this novel carries is that it's a lot like actually being at work. I don't know about you, but I get enough of that shit at the office.