December 12, 2014

Pretty Glad When I Came to the End: Let Down by Joshua Ferris's 'Then We Came To The End"

If you talk about this book, you have to talk about the narrative gimmick.

The majority of the book’s narration takes place in the second person plural.

That means it is all “We did this,” and “We did that”.

It was distracting at first. I think it was on page 18 when I said to myself that the gimmick fades away. Actually, it was page eighteen, because I made a note of it in my head. It was kind of like the vernacular in Clockwork Orange or the novels of Irving Welsh. The narrative fade away. The closest comparison is “Bright Lights, Big City,” where McInerney gives a sense of immediacy to the narrative by using the second person. All the action in that novel is “You do this,” etc. It really personalizes what’s going on as a reader, perhaps even more so than a straight first person narration.

The problem, narrative, is that the “We” creates a distance, even though it is a first person form. As a reader you don’t feel included, but the “We” refers to a group of people, and you never get a sense of who the person(s) speaking are supposed to be.

That said, Ferris nails office life. He does it so well, I almost didn’t want to read the book when I came home from my own office. Why make your leisure reflect your work hours.

The book is structured in basically four main parts, two large parts with the “We” structure, with an interlude between focusing on the office’s boss’s cancer. There is a coda that is five years after the main action, where the interlude is transformed to a book one of the character was writing.

Hold on. Here’s what the book is about. An advertising agency deals with the recession of the late 90s – early aughts. People are laid off one by one in a process that seem like it is taking a year (In a similar situation I was in, turnover was much more drastic and quick). They all deal with losing colleagues and the anxiety that they may be next in their own way. One guy is mad, and comes back dressed as a clown ready to….
But I don’t want to spoil anything, since that’s the only real action of the book.

The worst part is that the main action of the book end on September 11th. So the book goes from a writing class exercise with some truths about the workplace and grows a Ham Fist. The closing coda doesn’t help, especially the last sentence. Especially the last sentence. It hangs a lampshade on the whole narrative gimmick. The book wasn’t bad, but it could have been so much better.

The funny thing is that there is a short interview with the author at the end. One of my thoughts was that the part with the sick boss was a bit of pathos-laden overkill, and the book would have improved with the elision of that segment and the whole subplot. In the interview, Ferris calls that part the narrative center of his book. I guess we’re reading his work differently.