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What is "Then We Came To The End" trying to say?
on April 20, 2007
Despite widespread critical acclaim, this book has gotten mixed reviews from customers.
I understand it, and people who hated it aren't wrong. I'd like to address these criticisms later, so please stick with me.
The positive reviews I've read about "Then We Came To The End" are mostly spot-on -- but without giving it away, they don't consistently convey WHY this amusing, touching and ultimately tender book soars - at least for me.
It's the ending.
The last 20 pages of Joshua Ferris's book twisted and turned me in every direction. But it's THE VERY LAST LINE -- (DON'T CHEAT) -- that catapulted me into the universe with the most glorious twist of all.
Many writers searching for something to leave behind that feels ironic or profound -- I'm sorry -- in my view, they just don't know how to end their books. I say this as a consumer who's a voracious reader. Their last pages feel quietly pretentious -- or a little too contemplative or optimistic. Even great literature - especially prize-winning literature - can be so tortuous in construction or over-reaching in their efforts to convey some grand message -- that they feel like work, with sentences so mind-numbing that you need a dictionary and a level of concentration akin to taking a bar exam.
"Then We Came To The End" may not be considered great literature, but it's euphoric. It's wonderful. It underscores that nebulous "thing" that makes the office dull and robotic -- but also vital and vibrant, essential to our lives. The book makes me question, admire and dismiss -- all at once -- why I put up with so much " s***," why I find great satisfaction in my work on one day and why I hate everything the next. The masochistic, sadistic and triumphal feelings I have about work -- and about the "back stories" of my colleagues around me -- there's something weirdly magnetic about all of it -- even as I complain, complain, complain.
In my view, the simplicity (or difficulty) associated with "Then We Came To The End" really depends on whether the material hits you in a way that's familiar and funny, not dull or indulgent. It can do both. And as others have stated, the author's use of the first person plural "we" -- in every chapter but one -- can't be overstated. It's miraculous when it works -- because it's so difficult to pull off without fumbling or confusing the reader. When it does work (as it did for me) - when it's infused with content so beguiling and familiar -- you're no longer aware of the author's writing style, which should be the dream achievement of all great writers. Reading becomes effortless as the clock melts away.
Joshua Ferris recently said in an interview -- and at a recent book signing -- that the thing intriguing about every office is this: Even if you don't know everyone very well or at all, EVERYONE has an OPINION about YOU and everyone else.
This may feel like a universal nugget of common sense, but you're not really aware of it until it unfurls between the lines and chapters of this book. The beginning of most chapters include sub-chapter "headlines" which tease you about what's to come. Soon, boredom and irreverence are transformed into amusing and almost affectionate feelings -- about everything that happens.
The biggest criticism about "Then We Came to the End" is the skeletal development of its characters. Well, when I got to the last line on the last page, it became more clear to me why this MUST be the case. Every character -- in every chapter but one -- is presented as a "type."
But this feels intentional. The collective "we" is forced to guess what each character is thinking. And like most offices, "we" can only know as much as what we SEE or HEAR. The most trivial information becomes precious and titanic. And the results can be tragic AND darkly funny. The collective "we" can't read minds, so we draw our own conclusions to ridiculous lengths. In the end, we have sketches. And this feels right. How many of our co-workers become life-long friends with whom we trust to share our most intimate secrets? One or two if we're lucky. It takes work - AT WORK - to get beneath the surface of our colleagues. Almost everyone comes off thinly drawn because the collective "we" is forever deprived a complete picture of WHAT and HOW each person thinks.
For example, I know people in my office, but some remain a mystery. When I get together with colleagues, we trade stories about everyone. When one guy leaves the room, we might talk about him. Or not. Most of our stories are sprinkled with guesses and presumptions. Who's deviant? Who's got the gun collection? Who's the lush? Who's got the wild double life? "Someone" might know, but "we" as a group don't.
I would say that "Then We Came to the End" is an observational and episodic novel -- subject to wide interpretation -- because of a literary device that seldom works in most novels. If you're looking for "fleshed out" characters and profound themes, you won't find them here. This book isn't for you and this is not a criticism. Your complaints are justified. I believe expectations matter. A novel so widely acclaimed that disappoints will cause anyone to say out loud, "well, this was all hype" - or - "man oh man, those critics are so out of touch with me."
I still believe Ferris has captured the delicate balance between satire and brutal truth, the latter in ways which sound superficial and cliché, but woven in his book as they do, rang true for me.
There's something strange about that colleague you regard with derision or fear on one level, but with admiration and respect the next. And what about work itself? Why is our identity and self-image defined by it? Why does it have to matter more than just a way to put bread on the table? These questions went through my head as I turned each page.
So yeah, I know it's still early. But in my view, "Then We Came To The End" is the most remarkable debut of 2007. While it's difficult to imagine Joshua Ferris topping this, I've no doubt he has a tremendous future and a unique voice that will always feel relevant.