Back in June at BEA, I had a meeting with Reagan Arthur, an editor at Little, Brown who was an early supporter of the Litblog Co-op. (She's also a MOTEV fan, which always counts extra around here.) I asked her what she was particularly excited about and she handed me one book - Joshua Ferris' novel Then We Came To The End. This one, she told me enthusiastically. I love this book, she said. And so it went into my bag - along with about 30 other BEA titles. When I got home it went from suitcase to bookshelf, and there it sat until December.
In the intervening months, I picked up the book a number of times and thumbed through it. But I was stopped by a pair of prejudices. The author has an MFA from UC Irvine, and we all know how I feel about that. And the setting - office cubicle life - didn't exactly whisper to me.
But I trusted Reagan's taste, so I hung on to the book and kept returning it to the shelves. Those shelves finally reached critical mass here in November and, even though I purchased another book case, it was time to purge. I began pulling off books for donation, making my peace with the fact that I would never read them. And I came once more across Then We Came to the End. Which nearly came to its end in my outgoing pile.
I couldn't do it, and so I sat down and decided, "I am going to read the first twenty-five pages of this and then, only then, if I don't like, it's gone."
A hundred pages later I was still sitting there. I kept reading, kept worrying that the promise wouldn't be fulfilled. But I finished the book in three or four sittings. And although one book might not be enough to prompt me to completely reevalute my stance on MFAs, it's a book that's taught me the importance of keeping an open mind. Because I would have missed one of my favorite books of the year.
It's set at a Chicago advertising agency at the beginning of the economic downturn. Jobs are being lost and much time is consumed trying to determine how to look busy enough to stay employed. It's a modest landscape but Ferris imbues it with such humanity that it's continually moving in surprising ways. I've been put off the "workplace" genre by the snarky condescension of The Office and Max Barry's Company, but Ferris has respect and affection for his characters.
Stylistically, Ferris works from an interestingly indeterminate point of view. A weirdly shifting first person plural that at first risks being a distancing device but ends up somehow underscoring the universal nature of this workplace experience that anyone who's spent time in an office will recognize. And hovering over the whole thing is Ferris' powerful theme of uncertainty. Jobs aren't all that are on the line; lives are held in the balance, too.
This isn't a formal review, and I'm still working out all of my thoughts about this fine book. But it occured to the me that the best thing I could do for you would be to allow you to read some of it for yourself. So, with the kind permission of Little Brown, I am reprinting here for your holiday reading pleasure our first-ever TEV novel excerpt, the entire first chapter of Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. He's a lovely writer who has written a humane and affecting book and I hope you'll like what you see here. (The excerpt continues after the jump.)
You Don't Know
What’s in My Heart
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. We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.
Ordinarily jobs came in and we completed them in a timely and professional manner. Sometimes fuckups did occur. Printing errors, transposed numbers.Our business was advertising and details were important. If the third number after the second hyphen in a client's toll-free number was a six instead of an eight, and if it went to print like that, and showed up in Time magazine, no one reading the ad could call now and order today. No matter they could go to the website, we still had to eat the price of the ad. Is this boring you yet? It bored us every day.Our boredom was ongoing, a collective boredom, and it would never die because we would never die.
Lynn Mason was dying. She was a partner in the agency. Dying? It was uncertain. She was in her early forties. Breast cancer. No one could identify exactly how everyone had come to know this fact.Was it a fact? Some people called it rumor. But in fact there was no such thing as rumor. There was fact, and there was what did not come up in conversation. Breast cancer was controllable if caught in the early stages but Lynn may have waited too long. The news of Lynn brought Frank Brizzolera to mind.
We recalled looking at Frank and thinking he had six months, tops. Old Brizz, we called him. He smoked like a fiend. He stood outside the building in the most inclement weather, absorbing Old Golds in nothing but a sweater vest. Then and only then, he looked indomitable.When he returned inside, nicotine stink preceded him as he walked down the hall, where it lingered long after he entered his office. He began to cough, and from our own offices we heard the working-up of solidified lung
sediment. Some people put him on their Celebrity Death Watch every year because of the coughing, even though he wasn't an official celebrity. He knew it, too, he knew he was on death watch, and that certain wagering individuals would profit from his death. He knew it because he was one of us, and we knew everything.
We didn't know who was stealing things from other people's workstations. Always small items - postcards, framed photographs. We had our suspicions but no proof. We believed it was probably not for the loot so much as the excitement - the shoplifter's addictive kick, or maybe it was a pathological cry for help. Hank Neary, one of the agency's only black writers, asked, "Come on, now- who would want my travel toothbrush?"
We didn't know who was responsible for putting the sushi roll behind Joe Pope's bookshelf. The first couple of days Joe had no clue about the sushi. Then he started taking furtive sniffs at his pits, and holding the wall of his palm to his mouth to get blowback from his breath. By the end of the week, he was certain it wasn't him.We smelled it, too. Persistent, high in the nostrils, it became worse than a dying animal. Joe's gorge rose every time he entered his office. The following week the smell was so atrocious the building people got involved, hunting the office for what turned out to be a sunshine roll- tuna, whitefish, salmon, and sprouts. Mike Boroshansky, the chief of security, kept bringing his tie up to his nose, as if he were a real cop at the scene of a murder.
We thanked each other. It was customary after every exchange. Our thanks were never disingenuous or ironic.We said thanks for getting this done so quickly, thanks for putting in so much effort. We had a meeting and when a meeting was over, we said thank you to the meeting makers for having made the meeting. Very rarely did we say anything negative or derogatory about meetings. We all knew there was a good deal of pointlessness to nearly all the meetings and in fact one meeting out of every three or four was nearly perfectly without gain or purpose but many meetings revealed the one thing that was necessary and so we attended them and afterward we thanked each other.
Karen Woo always had something new to tell us and we hated her guts for it. She would start talking and our eyes would glaze over. Might it be true, as we sometimes feared on the commute home, that we were callous, unfeeling individuals, incapable of sympathy, and full of spite toward people for no reason other than their proximity and familiarity? We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves. Should we quit? Would that solve it? Or were those qualities innate, dooming us to nastiness and paucity of spirit? We hoped not.
Marcia Dwyer became famous for sending an e-mail to Genevieve Latko-Devine. Marcia often wrote to Genevieve after meetings. "It is really irritating to work with irritating people," she once wrote.There she ended it and waited for Genevieve's response. Usually when she got Genevieve's e-mail, instead of writing back, which would take too long - Marcia was an art director, not a writer-she would head down to Genevieve's office, close the door, and the two women would talk. The only thing bearable about the irritating event involving the irritating person was the thought of telling it all to Genevieve, who would understand better than anyone else. Marcia could have called her mother, her mother would have listened. She could have called one of her four brothers, any one of those South Side pipe-ends would have been more than happy to beat up the irritating person. But they would not have understood. They would have sympathized, but that was not the same thing. Genevieve would hardly need to nod for Marcia to know she was getting through. Did we not all understand the essential need for someone to understand? But the e-mail Marcia got back was not from Genevieve. It was from Jim Jackers. "Are you talking about me?" he wrote. Amber Ludwig wrote, "I'm not Genevieve." Benny Shassburger wrote, "I think you goofed." Tom Mota wrote, "Ha!" Marcia was mortified. She got sixty-five e-mails in two minutes. One from HR cautioned her against sending personal e-mails. Jim wrote a second time. "Can you please tell me - is it me, Marcia? Am I the irritating person you're talking about?"
Marcia wanted to eat Jim's heart because some mornings he shuffled up to the elevators and greeted us by saying, "What up, my niggas?" He meant it ironically in an effort to be funny, but he was just not the man to pull it off. It made us cringe, especially Marcia, especially if Hank was present.
In those days it wasn't rare for someone to push someone else down the hall really fast in a swivel chair. Games aside, we spent most of our time inside long silent pauses as we bent over our individual desks, working on some task at hand, lost to it - until Benny, bored, came and stood in the doorway. "What are you up to?" he'd ask.
It could have been any of us. "Working" was the usual reply. Then Benny would tap his topaz class ring on the doorway and drift away.
How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space. There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with our two minds.
There seemed to be only the one electric pencil sharpener in the whole damn place.
We didn't have much patience for cynics. Everyone was a cynic at one point or another but it did us little good to bemoan our unbelievable fortunes. At the national level things had worked out pretty well in our favor and entrepreneurial cash was easy to come by. Cars available for domestic purchase, cars that could barely fit in our driveways, had a martial appeal, a promise that, once inside them, no harm would come to our children. It was IPO this and IPO that. Everyone knew a banker, too. And how lovely it was, a bike ride around the forest preserve on a Sunday in May with our mountain bikes, water bottles, and safety helmets. Crime was at an all-time low and we heard accounts of former welfare recipients holding steady jobs.New hair products were being introduced into the marketplace every day and the glass shelves of our stylists were stocked with tidy rows of them, which we eyed in the mirror as we made small talk, each of us certain, there's one up there just for me. Still, some of us had a hard time finding boyfriends. Some of us had a hard time fucking our wives.
Some days we met in the kitchen on sixty to eat lunch. There was only room for eight at the table. If all the seats were full, Jim Jackers would have to eat his sandwich from the sink and try to engage from over in that direction. It was fortunate for us in that he could pass us a spoon or a packet of salt if we needed it.
"It is really irritating," Tom Mota said to the table, "to work with irritating people."
"Screw you,Tom," Marcia replied.
Headhunters hounded us. They plied us with promises of better titles and increases in pay. Some of us went but most of us stayed.We liked our prospects where we were and didn't care for the hassle of meeting new people. It had taken us a while to familiarize ourselves and to feel comfortable. First day on the job, names went in one ear and out the other. One minute you were being introduced to a guy with a head of fiery red hair and fair skin crawling with freckles, and before you knew it you had moved on to someone new and then someone after that. A few weeks would go by, gradually you'd start to put the name to the face, and one day it just clicked, to be wedged there forever: the eager redhead's name was Jim Jackers. There was no more confusing him with "Benny Shassburger" whose name you tended to see on e-mails and handouts but hadn't come to recognize yet as the slightly heavyset, dough-faced Jewish guy with the corkscrew curls and quick laugh. So many people! So many body types, hair colors, fashion statements.
Marcia Dwyer's hair was stuck in the eighties. She listened to terrible music, bands we had outgrown in the eleventh grade. Some of us had never even heard of the music she listened to, and it was inconceivable that she could enjoy such noise. Others of us didn't like music at all, some preferred talk radio, and there was a large contingent that kept their radios tuned to the oldies station. After everyone went home for the night, after we all fell asleep and the city dimmed, oldies continued to play inside the abandoned office. Picture it - only a parallelogram of light in the doorway.A happy tune by the Drifters issuing in the dark at two, three o'clock in the morning, when elsewhere murders were taking place, drug deals, unspeakable assaults. Crime was down, but it had yet to be rendered obsolete. In the mornings, our favorite DJs were back on, playing our favorite oldies. Most of us ate the crumb toppings first and then the rest of the muffin. They were the same songs that would play throughout a nuclear winter.
We had visceral, rich memories of dull, interminable hours. Then a day would pass in perfect harmony with our projects, our family members, and our coworkers, and we couldn't believe we were getting paid for this. We decided to celebrate with wine at dinner. Some of us liked one restaurant in particular while others spread out across the city, sampling and reviewing.We were foxes and hedgehogs that way. It was vitally important to Karen Woo that she be the first to know of a new restaurant. If someone mentioned a new restaurant Karen didn't know about, you could bet your bottom dollar that Karen would be there that very night, sampling and reviewing, and when she came in the next morning, she told us (those of us who didn't know about the other person's knowing about the new restaurant) about the new restaurant she'd just been to, how great it was, and how we all had to go there. Those of us who followed Karen's suggestion gave the same advice to those of us who hadn't heard Karen's suggestion, and soon we were all running into one another at the new restaurant. By then Karen wouldn't be caught dead there.
Early in the time of balanced budgets and the remarkable rise of the NASDAQ we were given polo shirts of quality cotton with the agency's logo stitched on the left breast. The shirt was for some team event and everyone wore it out of company pride. After the event was over, it was uncommon to see anyone wearing that polo again - not because we had lost our company pride, but because it was vaguely embarrassing to be seen wearing something everyone knew had been given to you for free. After all, our portfolios were stuffed with NASDAQ offerings and if our parents had only been able to buy us outfits from Sears, we could now afford Brooks Brothers and had no need for free shirts. We gave them to the Goodwill or they languished in our drawers or we put them on to mow the lawn. A few years later,Tom Mota exhumed his companypride polo from some box of clothes under his bed. Likely he found it when the Mota chattels were being divided up by order of a judge. He wore it to work. He had worn the polo along with the rest of us on that polo-wearing day, but his life had changed dramatically since then and we thought it was an indication of where his head was at that he didn't mind being seen in a shirt most of us used to wash our cars. It really was a very handy cotton. Then Tom wore the same shirt the next day.We wondered where he was sleeping. On the third day, we were concerned about his showering.When Tom passed an entire week in the same polo, we expected it to give off an odor. But he must have been washing it, and we pictured him bare-chested at the Laundromat watching his one polo turn in the dryer, because his wife wouldn't let him return to his Naperville home.
By the end of the month, we figured out finally it had nothing to do with Tom's divorce. Thirty straight days in the same corporate polo - it was the beginning of Tom's campaign of agitation.
"You ever going to change out of it?" asked Benny. "I love this shirt. I want to be buried in it." "Would you take mine, at least, so you can switch off?" "I would love that," said Tom.
So Benny gave Tom his polo, but Tom didn't use it to switch off. Instead he wore Benny's on top of his own. Two polos, one under the other. He approached the rest of us and solicited our polos as well. Jim Jackers grasped at any opportunity to ingratiate himself, and soon Tom was walking around in three polos.
"Lynn Mason's starting to ask questions," said Benny. "Company pride," said Tom. "But three at a time?"
"You don't know what's in my heart," said Tom, pounding his fist against the corporate logo three times. "Company pride."
Some days green was on top, some days red, some days blue. Later we found out he was the one responsible for taping the sunshine roll to the back of Joe's bookshelf. He was responsible for many things, including changing everyone's radio stations, making pornographic screensavers, and leaving his seed on the floor of the men's rooms on sixty and sixty-one.We knew he was responsible because once he was laid off, the radios went unmolested and the custodians no longer complained to management.
It was the era of take-ones and tchotchkes. The world was flush with Internet cash and we got our fair share of it. It was our position that logo design was every bit as important as product performance and distribution systems. "Wicked cool" were the words we used to describe our logo designs. "Bush league" were the words we used to describe the logo designs of other agencies - unless it was a really well-designed logo, in which case we bowed down before it,much like the ancient Mayans did their pagan gods. We, too, thought it would never end.
Copyright © 2007 by Joshua Ferris