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Then We Came to the End July 15, 2008

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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It took me a while to warm up to Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End. In fact I’m not quite sure I ever really did.

In terms of the big picture, I can see why the book has been well received by critics. For one, it’s pretty well crafted office satire, routine drudgery, workplace intrigue, office shenanigans and all. The plot is somewhat intricately structured: the story goes off seemingly in a hundred different directions at once, teasing the readers’ interest all the while, only later coming together to make some modicum of sense. And then there’s the storytelling technique, which can only be described as a remarkable achievement because of the way it makes the reader feel less like a spectator and more a close acquaintance of the different characters involved.

Yet it was the details, as I continued to read and tried to develop an opinion of the book, that never truly resonated with me. Then We Came to the End is good office satire to be sure, but not laugh out loud funny as some critics have suggested. Mostly, this is because the requisite humor involved is overly context specific — the story takes place at an ad agency, arguably the least representative industry for corporate life, and an American one at that.

As for the plot, the novel’s unusual structure will certainly captivate some audiences and infuriate others. I lean towards the latter group. Yes, I will admit that my interest was teased as the story wore on, but there were stretches on end that were positively frustrating to plod through, their significance in the broader scheme of the plot unnecessarily obscure until well too late. And the storytelling technique? It’s fairly obvious at the end that a large part of the novel was just the author experimenting with the narrative style, and quite successfully, too. While I’m of the mind that this alone may be good enough reason to have a go at the book, even I have to ask the obvious question: all that for a gimmick?

By all accounts though, the novel demonstrates that Joshua Ferris is one talented writer. Indeed, the novel’s watershed moment is a section in the middle — uncompromisingly injected at the least predictable of places — that elicits such pathos from the reader and in the process changes one’s perspective on what the story is really about. Few writers could have pulled off much the same with greater success. But whether there is enough merit in that to trumpet the novel’s finer points I have yet to decide. Ultimately, I suppose that what sets Then We Came to the End apart is that it is a very current novel about office life (mostly) to which many should easily relate and which will strike others as so uniquely devised. As such, some will find it a tad unsettling — as I did — even as others struggle to contain their excitement over it.

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