In September, my book club read Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, an enjoyable, engaging read.
On the one hand, I zipped through the book in a couple of days, so I obviously enjoyed it. On the other hand, I had a hard time determining whether Ferriss was intentionally beating on tired office cliches: the secret romance, the underdog(s) who go on to bigger/better things, the breakdowns, the enigmatic boss with inner demons, etc.
Aspects of Then We Came to the End were well done: the first person plural narration, the sense of futile frenetic energy in a workplace trying to justify its existence, the disconnect between real life and work life. I loved the bits and pieces of Chicago that emerged throughout the story. The interlude at the center of the book – a meditation on a woman’s cancer diagnosis – was moving and effective. The ending reminded me a bit of the “wake” towards the end of The Wire, when they’re “burying” various characters’ careers as Baltimore police: the simultaneous sadness and fun. But again, done more effectively elsewhere. At the same time, Ferris’s intended satire of workplace characters and tropes often falls flat, feeling more clichéd than clever.
Ultimately, Then We Came to the End reminded me a lot of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. This is actually somewhat problematic for me because Microserfs is among my favorite books, making me susceptible to over-appreciating the workplace novel and also unable to appropriately compare other workplace novels. The two share many of the same character types and scenarios, but I feel like Microserfs carries a different and more substantial emotional weight. It’s not that Ferris did something specifically wrong – it’s just that Coupland does it better.
This is the second of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.
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Microserfs is one of my favorite novels as well. How did I not know this or forget this about you! 😉 I vividly remember Mel and I going to the Barnes and Noble in Cape Girardeau (it was the closest one at the time) and picking it up on a whim. To this day, it’s one of those books that if I start reading it, I will not stop till I’m done. I’ve read some other Douglas Coupland novels, but it’s still by far my favorite.