This column launches an occasional feature in which Slate will name a debut of the monthfor your consideration.
Some years back, I worked for a large American corporation that moved to a new building, gathering its satellite offices into a single Death Star. My new office bordered the area allotted to a “task group” that appeared to have little work to do. Its members spent most of their time complaining that the new location didn’t match the sublimity of their previous boom-era pad. It had possessed an enormous tank filled with exotic fish, which, alas, Human Resources had refused to transport to the Death Star. One afternoon, a member of this group poked his head in my office and, in elated tones, told me they had won the battle, if not the war: They’d been granted a modest new aquarium by Human Resources—and would I like to see it? I joined them for a root beer—and found him and his co-workers milling around a glass aquarium about 3 feet long. It was empty. “Where are the fish?” I asked. “Oh, they’re not here yet,” he replied. “But isn’t this thrilling?”
Ah, the doldrums of office life: so pervasive, yet so easily alleviated by doses of modest, company-sponsored delight. This mood—or rhythm, really—is adroitly captured in Joshua Ferris’ funny debut novel, Then We Came to the End. It explores the relationship between individual identity and the hive, joining a venerable, if still short, list of modern American novels about work: Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Don DeLillo’s Americana (from which the title and more is borrowed), Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, George Saunders’ short story collections, and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road,among others. Ferris is interested in whether American workaholism—we work on average 300 hours more a year than the Germans do, for example—deforms not only our posture but our souls. Do we become who we work for? And does that matter?
Set in an ad agency in Chicago, Then We Came to the End chronicles, in ironized, meandering style, the company’s bumpy transition from the glory days of the Internet boom (“[t]he world was flush with Internet cash, and we got our fair share of it”) to the austere months following the stock market crash of April 2000. The agency embarks on a series of layoffs that provide the ostensible plot engine, but Ferris absorbs us with close observations of life lived under fluorescent lights: “How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, all the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned to cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything again.” Like their Dunder-Mifflin counterparts, the employees at this agency salivate when they hear there are free bagels, argue over the rightful ownership of a coveted office chair, and fret over the fact that their lives consist of making people want to buy cold sore remedies. But they also take pride in their accomplishments, and Ferris infuses his characters with a humanized peculiarity that complicates his view enough to keep it from seeming over-familiar.
What ties the novel together is the canny formal choice Ferris has made: his decision to write the novel in the first-person plural. There is no single “narrator.” Rather, a group of workers relates the story, reconceiving 19th-century omniscience as a gossipy group consciousness:
When, a few weeks later, [the company] let go of Jim Jackers, we said they lifted him off his seat by the middle belt loop of his jeans and threw him from the building. We said he went flying three stairs at a time until he landed on the curb, where he picked himself up and checked his forehead for blood.
Other novels, like Americana, rely on the “we” to great effect at times, as one voice speaking for the collective. But this “we” is less a single individual than an amalgam of the group. This gimmick works—not because Ferris’ prose is utterly distinctive (it’s a little flat) but because the “we” allows him to make a point about individuality in the era of corporate branding (that it doesn’t quite exist) on the level of language rather than editorial argument. One day, you’re saying, “I’ll ask my client about that”; the next, you’re uttering, “I’ll make the ask.” It also lets Ferris move seamlessly from stories about one character to another, showing how one worker accommodates easily to office life, while another finds the malleability of his own identity terrifying. Take Carl, who, sitting in the car one morning with his wife, bursts out in disgust at his own dislike of a co-worker whose daughter was recently murdered: ” ‘I don’t want to be the person that hates Janine Gorjanc. If I go inside [the office] I will be that person because I will smell her. I don’t want to have to smell her. If I smell her I will hate her and I don’t want to be that person. You have to take me home.’ ”
What’s best about Then We Came to the End isn’t the familiar point that the mind is easily colonized by an institution, but Ferris’ way of enactingthat colonization. The “we” is always changing its opinions. These employees don’t know who they are without the office, and this is in part what confuses them. They don’t want to be the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but they suspect they might be. Consider copywriter Chris Yop, who attends a company meeting even after he’s been fired (“This meeting’s been in my calendar for a long time”). They daydream about fleeing the confines of the office. (“We thought moving to India might be better”), yet they can’t bring themselves to give up the benefits. (“We still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately.”) The brusque Tom Mota, the office’s alpha male—an updated version of the “Trotsky” figure in Americana— has been abandoned by his wife, and now sends whacked-out e-mails to the company quoting Emerson. If Mota labors to remind his fellow white-collar wage slaves that they too have souls, even he is not quite able to believe he is one of those men that Emerson had in mind when he wrote, “For all our penny-wisdom, for all our soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted, that all men have sublime thoughts … ”
And so Ferris gets at the way in which even his characters’ gestures toward discontentment, rebelliousness, and individuality get co-opted somehow. Unlike the 1950s organization man who couldn’t fully express his ambivalence about the pro-loyalty mentality of his time , the 1990s worker bee is heavily ironic about “The Man” and armed with more rhetoric about “personal fulfillment” and the necessity of preserving some distance between himself and his job. But the hyper-self-awareness of being a drone is only a superficial liberation: They’re still stuck in a form of groupthink, busy having fun looking down on those who don’t dress well (“He wore off-brand, too-tight jeans and generic tennis shoes, which, to us, conveyed the extent to which he’d given up”).
That’s why they all become obsessed with the plight of Lynn Mason, their remote and intimidating boss, who may or may not have breast cancer: If they can turn their voyeuristic curiosity into genuine compassion (“only connect,” as it were), they will have proved to themselves that they still have souls. “By choosing not to tell us that she had cancer, she had cheated us of one of our most dearly held illusions—namely, that we were not present strictly for the money, but could also be concerned about the well-being of those around us.” (In one chapter, Ferris abandons the “we” to explore, in the first-person, Mason’s inner life, a choice that struck me as an effective juxtaposition.) The trajectory of her story is one of the most interesting elements of the book, partly because it dramatizes the way bristly and nuanced forms of empathy flourish even in the thin, recycled air of office life.
The book has its flaws—it’s far too long, for one thing—but one reason Then We Came to the End is notable is that few young American writers seem truly interested in the workplace. This is strange, because the workplace offers up precisely the kind of large-scale thematic questions that marriage once provided: To what degree does it shape us—our language, our values, our identity? What is most striking about Ferris’ take is that, for all the hype we’ve heard about how dramatically the workplace has changed in our contemporary era of greater labor mobility (one that has also seen the influx of women and the advent of the computer), not all that much seems different in the industry Ferris depicts. Indeed, stripped of references to the Internet, Then We Came to the End could almost be set in the 1950s of Revolutionary Road or the 1960s of Americana, driving home that in many industries, the continuities are far more striking than the differences. Perhaps in the era of the professionalization of writing itself, many novelists have avoided chronicling the subtleties of office life because it’s not perceived as “literary”—or because they have no experience of it. But as Then We Came to the End begins to suggest, it is one of the richest settings of our time.