Electricity & Lust

Book Club #1: Then We Came to an End by Joshua Ferris

Posted in Book Club, books, Sam by Sam Unsted on March 7, 2008
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The inaugural edition takes in this work, fast-becoming a post-Gen X semi-classic of office-based comedic literature. Joshua Ferris place as the hot kid on the block is sealed but at its heart, the very same issues that plague much of the work of Gen-X deity Douglas Coupland; it’s just not all that interesting.

Ferris’ story takes place in a Chicago ad firm and its characterisation, for anyone whose worked in an advertising environment, is very strong. He establishes character quickly and economically and they feel real, 3D and without characiture. That’s the strongest part of the story and by narrating as an omnipresent second person, Ferris places us inside the story nicely and allows empathy, sympathy and understanding to flow. Perhaps the real problem on this is that Ferris fails to make the characters interesting in their ordinariness. They are subtle but not grabbing, there is not enough of them to really get an understanding of. Those who love the book unequivocally will tell you this is a comment on the isolation of modern office life and maybe even a wider comment on the lack of community. The characters don’t ever light up and become full to you and therefore, you don’t grow to truly love all of them.

The other key issue with the book for me is Ferris’ decision to write three entirely different books. The first half concerns the office place where buyouts and redundancy are likelihoods. This portion is strong, giving credence to those concerns of community breaking down, family structure breaking down and work become the centre of the universe. Its well structured and deeply Generation X in its detachment from true emotion. He does pepper the story with humanity but as I say, he fails to attain a level of emotional power needed to fully grab.

The second part takes on the breast cancer and relationship troubles of a character. The story is well-rendered and the character, Lynn, is great. He writes the whole portion beautifully and it really is the strongest moments that come here. The problem? This is a totally different book to the one you’ve been reading. Every other character dies off into the background and you get a strong short story about a woman struggling with cancer and with the relationship with her semi-serious beau.

The third part of the book then takes on the end of the office and a post-closure nostalgia. They have a mad man running around the office shooting people with paintballs. They have a crush coming to a head and eventual marriage. The wrap-ups come thick and fast and we are treated to the best character from the book, Benny, working in a new office where he isn’t finding the same sense of connection. His demise into a nostalgic fool, pining for the good old days is the best moment in the book and a whole work purely about Benny, half as long, would have been great.

As it is, we have a good but not spectacular work which engages with modern office culture and a few socio-personal issues but fails to ever really spark into life.

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