Compared ad nauseam by every literary critic in the business to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Joshua Ferris' debut novel Then We Came to the End doesn't live up to the hype. While amusing and spot-on, the clinging gimmickry of the novel's collective first-person voice ("We walked to the cafeteria"; "We gathered in her cubicle") never transcends the boredom and frustration of its setting, a pre-dot-com-bust era advertising agency in Chicago.
Focusing on a large ensemble of office dwellers in a time of impending unemployment, Ferris nails the uncertainty of layoffs and dwindling business. The looming fear is palpable as the corporate "we" struggles to look busy and stave off depression. "One crap ad could make the difference between the person they kept on and the one they let go... When we had trouble nailing an ad, our reputations were on the line. A good deal of our self-esteem was predicated on the belief that we were good marketers, that we understood what made the world tick—that in fact, we told the world how to tick." As a copywriter myself in an ad agency circa 2000, Then We Came to the End couldn't more accurately capture a time and a feeling. Without a doubt, Ferris slams it home.
But for all of its accuracies of tone, setting, and atmosphere, Ferris' novel doesn't invite emotional investment from the reader. With a cast of seemingly thousands, there aren't many hooks on which to hang your hat; the characters end up blending together in the first-person-plural soup. The "we" narration feels like a deliberately manipulative attempt to ape the conspiratorial tone of your gossiping coworker.
Midway through the novel, the narration briefly switches to third person, centering on an emotional time in the life of Lynn, the boss. She is struggling with her loneliness on the night before a mastectomy. It's an intense and effective chapter that finally provides that proverbial hat hook—and it should be noted that it's one of the rare moments in the book set outside the office.
Make no mistake, Then We Came to the End is not without its merits—but that's also part of its undoing. Do you really want to spend your evening hours reading a book that accurately describes your workday?