Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Office daze


I was really excited to read Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. It's about workers at an ad agency in Chicago in the late 90s, faced with lay-offs brought on by shrinking advertising budgets. As you can see, it's got a gorgeous cover and it was heaped with praise when it came out in hardback last year. I work in an office, and I was intrigued by a novel from a promising young writer about my daily reality. Spring was in the air and it was time to lighten up and read some humourous fiction. It started promisingly enough:

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 everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.

The first person plural narrator initially seemed like a quirky way of getting the reader instantly inside the gossip-y world of the strangers forced to spend most of their waking lives together as colleagues. A stream of characters were introduced, and some details were spot on - Marcia with her 80s hairstyle and continued devotion to the bands she worshipped as a teenager, the woman still a teenager in her head; Jim Jackers, with his insecure desire to be loved by all and his fear of the blank page, the archetypal college kid transitioning to adulthood.

But I couldn't get hooked on the story. The first person plural narrator stopped being quirky and just started grating. I didn't care about the characters, so I didn't really care about the endless firings. I didn't care enough to follow who was laid off when. And, crucially, I didn't care about the tragedies playing out in these characters' lives. I wasn't moved by the mother of the murdered child handicapped by grief. I didn't care about the suicidal Carl Garbedian, with his existential crisis and marital problems. I found most of it profoundly depressing, particularly the bullying and isolation of Joe Pope.

I had a reprieve in the middle of the book. For a brief chapter Ferris moved into third person singular, following the character of Lynn, a partner at the ad firm. His writing here was much better, portraying a woman used to being in control during a very vulnerable time. The depth and complexity on display were so much more appealing to me and gives me faith that Joshua Ferris is a writer of talent if he can move beyond stylistic posturing. And it helped me get through the book, as I think I would have put it down otherwise.

This book made me wonder, yet again, about what goes on in reviewing circles. Had any of these reviewers every actually worked in an office? Perhaps if they hadn't, it would explain how they could find such a depressing book "dazzling" and "stunning" and the like. It's funny how there's usually such a consensus around debuts like this, like he's been annointed the hot writer with the buzz for the year, so nearly every reviewer is going to treat his debut as the best thing they've read. But it's certainly reminded me that I need to get back to my usual policy of ignoring the critical guff on prelims and jacket blurbs...

9 comments:

Verbivore said...

You capture so well the frustration I had with this book. The "we" narrator just kept me out of the story and I didn't find sympathy for the characters. I'm impressed that you finished it!

Dorothy W. said...

I think I'd find the style annoying too. Thanks for the review -- this is probably a skippable book for me, and it's nice to know that!

Logophile said...

Verbivore, I wish I was able to put books down more! I couldn't even put down Glamour, by Louise Bagshawe - officially the worst book I've ever read. But it was just so gut-wrenchingly, tear-inducingly bad that I kind of enjoyed moaning copiously to everyone within earshot about just how terrible it was!

Dorothy, it's definately skippable so glad to be of service!

Gentle Reader said...

I actually liked the book, but mostly because I liked the section about Lynn. The first person plural thing bugged me at first, as did the amazingly silly stuff that went on in the office (though, having worked in offices quite a bit, I found it exaggerated but funny, not unlike the British version of the TV show "The Office"). I thought most of the characters were just "types", not real people--but sadly, they were types I recognized.

I guess the Lynn section, and the ending, where everyone's stories became clearer, redeemed it for me.

That said, I completely understand why some people I know put this one down (or threw it across the room!)

Logophile said...

Gentle Reader, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book before I bought it. I agree that the Lynn bits were the best. I also read a short story of his in the Guardian's summer fiction special last year (unfortunately no longer on their website) and I really enjoyed it.

Josh Maislin said...

I just finished the book and pretty much agree with your assessment. It seemed like the real base of the book was a superficial office-humor/sitcom where the characters simply serve as devices for the situations. He tries to infuse this base dynamic with depth, but it comes across as unnatural. It was a quick, easy read. Strangely enough, I've been working on a story about an office that is partially in third person plural. When I found out about this book, I had to read it. I guess it's a natural voice for the office setting...

Logophile said...

Josh, describing the characters as devices for the plot is a very good analysis. I recently finished Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates and found that a more powerful evocation of the office working life. It may be interesting for you to check out to help with your story.

raych said...

Aww, nuts. I JUST snagged this off the library holdshelf. Ah well, at least I didn't buy it. I can't put down books either, and I can't in good conscience not read them when they're on my shelf, so I'll probably plow through it, but something tells me I wont like it.

Thanks for the heads up!

Josh Maislin said...

hey logophile,

I just checked this blog after forgetting i posted
thanks for the recommendation!