Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End is equal parts stinging satire of working and moving character study about the meaning of life
For me, the best way to tell how I felt about a book is looking at my reaction to the ending. I’m not talking about my reaction to what happens, but more how I feel towards finishing the book and putting it down.Then We Came To The End made me feel something that I rarely feel in finishing a book: the desire for it to go on. Most books end in a satisfying way and I think that’s great. It’s great to come to the end of a book and think that the payoff was worth the journey. But the hilarious, somewhat tragic, and in the end an all-too-real look at the lives of everyone in the workforce had enough to go on.
When I first read this book I was in high school and probably still working at my first job ever as a sales associate at Toys R Us (but that’s a story for another day). I loved it. I thought it was a hilarious take on adulthood and this “real world” that everyone worries about. But reading it a second time when I am now a college graduate working in the so-called real world it turned into this shockingly accurate and tragically real look at what it is to work in an office.
Ferris’ writing is a work of genius. He includes passages of stinging humor like:
“It was madness to leave without your useless shit. You came in with it, you left with it–that was how it worked. What would you use to clutter a new office with if not your useless shit?”
But he also interjects surprisingly vivid and resonant sections.
“One topic — that was all we knew and it tyrannized every conversation. We fell into it helplessly, the way jilted lovers only know one subject, the way true bores never transcended the sorry limitations of their own lives. It was a shrill, carping, frenzied time, and as poisonous an atmosphere as anyone had ever known — and we wanted nothing more than to stay in it forever.”
But the real genius comes from his decision to write the book from the perspective narrator that refers to everyone in the office as a collective “we.” Not only is it fitting because often in a corporate setting you are made to work on a team, it also includes the reader in on the group. You hear the inside jokes. You hear the rumors sweep the office. You are as much of a participant in the book as the characters are. The entire book is structured as if you are hearing a story being relayed from person to person through the office.
The payoff is the final chapter, which I hope is why the title of the book refers to an end. After spending nearly 400 pages with these characters we are forced to say goodbye. Some we have to let go of because of tragedy. Some we have to let go of because contact was lost. However, what remained the same in these goodbyes was the fact that as each character departed, I felt a pang of sadness. I feel like I knew the character like he or she was a real person and I was never going to see them again.
Not everyone is going to love Then We Came to the End (just look at its Goodreads rating) because it’s not a book that’s written for everyone. It’s a book written for the subset of society that has alarms set for 7:30am and has to be at work at 9am. It’s for the people that can’t wait to hear a piece of office gossip. It’s for the people look forward to noon when they get one hour of freedom. For those people, this book will be a hilarious and poignant look at 8 hours of their day. But more than that it begs the question: “is this really the meaning of life?” For others, the humor will be hit or miss and the characters could be annoying or not relatable. For us, these characters are you and me.