"Then we Came To The End"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 28, 2007)
"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. Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness and quality of care. Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it."
Joshua Ferris’ brilliant debut, Then We Came To The End, starts out in the late 90’s and follows the work lives of advertising copywriters at a Chicago ad agency.
Among the many “creative creatives creating creative creative,” there’s Hank Neary, a black guy who dresses like an Oxford poet, Karen Woo who is always the first in on gossip, Benny Shassburger who nurses a crush on Marcia Dwyer and Joe Pope who is a total mystery. “We didn’t know what he did on the weekends. What sort of person showed up on Monday and had no interest in sharing what transpired over the course of the two days of the week when one’s real life took place?” they ask each other.
For a while, the copywriters float along on the strong economic winds of the 90’s, “corporate citizens, buttressed by advanced degrees and padded by corporate fat.” They are naively convinced they are “above the fickle market forces of overproduction and mismanaged inventory.” Until of course, the axe begins to fall and people start getting laid off.
As the remaining copywriters speculate about the origins of the one pro bono project they have and track the fate of a favorite company chair, they are mostly relieved to be still working when one by one each person around them is let go. “Work was everything. We liked to think it was family, it was God, it was following football on Sundays, it was shopping with the girls or a strong drink on Saturday night, that it was love, it was sex, that it was keeping our eye on retirement.”
The downward spiral that follows is inevitable but the plot of the story isn’t the central focus here. Being made privy to the stories of the characters’ lives, is. It is made even more pressing by Ferris’ brilliant use of the first person plural: “we.” Ferris’ writing is razor sharp. Even his metaphors are right on the money: “Just now the sun is coming up, the city dot-matrixing into life again, one dark spot at a time turning into light, brightening the buildings and the streets and distant highways.”
As the book progresses, the warmth of the writing comes through. Whether it’s Lynn Mason’s struggles with cancer, Carl Gebedian’s mid-life crisis or Joe Pope’s insecurities, Ferris spends enough time with each of his characters to illuminate each one with humanity. The book’s characters could easily have degenerated into cliché. It is to Ferris’ credit that they don’t.
One hears the word “funny” being bandied about a lot when it comes to this book. It transcends the tight confines of the category that word imposes. Sure, Then We Came to The End is funny--but it also intelligent, hip and incredibly moving.
“Every agency has its frustrated copywriter whose real life was being a failed novelist working on a small, angry book about work,” Ferris writes in the book. It is tempting to speculate if Ferris, who has worked in advertising before, was the “frustrated copywriter” he refers to here. In any case, it’s beside the point. With this debut, Ferris has produced his most “creative creative” yet.
Then We Came to The End is a must-read and a stunning debut. At one point in the book, Hank Neary says: “The fact that we spend most of our lives at work, that interests me.” I, for one, am delighted that the same fact also interested Joshua Ferris.
- Amazon readers rating: from 338 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Then We Came To the End at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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About the Author:
Joshua Ferris was born in 1974 in Danville, Illinios, a small town just over the Indiana border. When he was ten years old, his family moved to Cudjoe Key, Florida where he learned to fish, boat, snorkel and work (he had his own landscaping business). He moved back to Downers Grove, as suburb of Chicago, to attend high school and after went to the University of Iowa, where he received a BA in English and Philosophy. His first job was in an advertising firm in Chicago and then he worked for Draft Worldwide. He left Chicago to for the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine.
His short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Best New American Stories, Prairie Schooner, Phoebe, and New Stories from the South: Best of 2007.
He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.