What I’m Reading: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

When I quit my job a little less than a year ago, I planned among a variety of plans, to write a book. I wanted to write about my experiences at the company without getting super specific about things, partly to respect the privacy of my ex-colleagues and partly because it’s not my style. I like to think (rather egomaniacally) of my writing like an impressionist painting – a Seurat or Monet (please stop barfing). You know, the figures are there, defined by the misty essence of their temperament and milieu, but that man, that woman, they are every man and every woman.

Anyway. It was going to be so funny but also so sad and most importantly in all good works of literature, relatable. People would be like, “Oh man, this Betty. So talented. Razor sharp wit. Keen observer of the tragicomic hamster wheel that is corporate life.” You know, all the stuff people blurbed on Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End. 

Well. A good friend with good intentions gifted me the book a year ago but instead of spur me to launch into my own version of the “Great American Office Novel,” has only made me feel like, “Damn, it’s been done, and done well, and I think I’ll just stick to writing about my grandpa,” unless Ferris wants to take a stab at that too (along with my writer’s heart). I’m happy for him, really. He’s like what, thirty-eight? Graduated from UCI’s MFA program, before which he worked for three years as a copywriter in Chicago. I’m not exactly in love with the characters in his book, but I think after reading it, I’ll have felt like I’ve worked at the same office for three years. If that sounds weird, it’s not. It’s just good writing.

The opening passage describes my office, minus the overpaid part. Could it be your office too?

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently. 

Ferris describes perfectly the most important part of any job: its beginning and your gradual integration:

It had taken us a while to familiarize ourselves and to feel comfortable. First day on the job, names went in one ear and out the other. One minute you were being introduced to a guy with a head of fiery red hair and fair skin crawling with freckles, and before you knew it you had moved on to someone new and then someone new after that. A few weeks would go by, gradually you’d start to put the name to the face, and one day it just clicked, to be wedged there forever: the eager redhead’s name was Jim Jackers. There was no more confusing him with “Benny Shassburger” whose name you tended to see on e-mails and handouts but hadn’t come to recognize yet as the slightly heavyset, dough-faced Jewish guy with the corkscrew curls and quick laugh. So many people! So many body types, hair colors, fashion statements. 

And the strange detachment-cum-sadness that afflicts the people who stay behind, while others are let go:

What we didn’t consider was that in a downturn, we were the mismanaged inventory, and we were about to be dumbed like a glut of imported circuit boards. On the drive home we puzzled over who was next. Scott McMichaels was next. His wife had just had a baby. Sharon Turner was next. She and her husband had just purchased a house. Names – just names to anyone else, but to us they were the individuals who generated out greatest sympathy. The ones who put their things in a box, shook a few hands and left without complaint. They had no choice in the matter and they possessed a quiet resignation to their ill-timed fates. As they departed, it almost felt to us like self-sacrifice. They left, so that we might stay. And stay we did, though our hearts went out to them. 

And lastly, the art of killing time while seeming spectacularly busy (though to be perfectly honest I did not often have much time to kill – and if I did, I may or may not have pulled a few Hank Nearys):

We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so. We wandered the hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy (I was definitely guilty of this). We refilled our coffee mugs on floors we didn’t belong to (several of my coworkers were definitely guilty of this, though in their defense only the upstairs had Keurig machines). Hank Neary was an avid reader. He arrived early in his brown corduroy coat with a book taken from the library, coped all its pages on the Xerox machine, and sat at his desk reading what looked to passersby like the honest pages of business. He’d make it through a three-hundred page novel every two days or so. 

Except for me it wasn’t novels. It was, towards the end at least, grad school applications.

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