Joshua Ferris has written the zeitgeist-capturing opening. Like Dickens’ opening of A Tale of Two Cities, this ought to go down in history has one of those paragraphs that people learn because they’re trying to quote something not-Shakespeare. Dickens’ quote has become cliché, of course, and I don’t doubt that this would eventually become so as well – but Ferris even references …Two Cities in the middle of the novel, just to drive home that subconscious comparison that I can’t be the only one to’ve made.
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.
I work a pretty awful desk job. Have for three summers – it was interesting at first but has become really nothing all-that-special. It pays well and that’s why I’ve kept it up, but beyond that… well, it sucks. So I went into this book looking for something that would make me laugh a little at my plight and also help bolster me in the belief that going into entertainment – as I’ll broadly describe the possibility of doing producing, literary work, directing, acting, etc – is really a damn good idea. This is exactly what I got, although I realize that people would kill for my summer job and I probably haven’t given it a fair shake. But that’s for another blog…
Ferris writes the book in first-person-plural and its an interesting gambit, one that pays off big time. Don’t believe me? Look for the moments he hits you with the third-person or the single moment of first-person-singular. They’re powerful, especially the latter. You feel immediately like one of the members of this crowd, this office in Chicago. We all have stories from our lives, our parents’ lives, our friends’ lives, of the individuals in their offices and their quirks and tics and the gossip and the stories and this office comes to life in your imagination just like those offices. The back of my edition (the Penguin UK paperback) has a list of some of the characters and their quirks and its exactly how you or I might describe our office companions if we had to list them off for someone. Its so true-to-life and so real that you can’t help but believe in them, in the story, etc.
There isn’t much “plot”, per se, except the overarching statement on the end of American empire. Because that’s kind of what it is. The story takes place in 2000/2001 – it ends, essentially, at the beginning of August 2001, although there’s a jump to 2006 to wrap everything up. Sure, the dot-com bubble had burst, but we were still riding high. It was before the Twin Towers, it was before the wars, it was before the recession… it was the golden dawning of a new millenium. And yet, that spectre of everything that was to come was looming, even then – and that’s what this book takes note of. The layoffs, coming unexpectedly and rather randomly…. the worry over unhinged fire-ees returning to wreak havoc. We didn’t really have to think about that in 2001, but it was coming nonetheless. That’s the end Ferris is talking about with the title.
I don’t want to ruin one of the more entertaining moments of the end, but Ferris does take a meta turn at one point and it surprised the hell out of me because I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t the sort of “ITS ALL A DREAM” Shyamalan-y twist you could be tipped off to about a third of the way through – but it connects this book to the reality of the story very nicely. The book becomes, for a moment, creative non-fiction. I liked that.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Craig Brown of the Mail on Sunday is quoted on the front saying this book is “painfully funny… [and] absurdly true” and while its maybe not painfully funny, it’s definitely amusing. And it is most absurdly true – it is the mundane reality of all of our lives, those of us who work in a desk job. It isn’t quite “lives of quiet desperation” but it isn’t quite what we saw for ourselves, either – it is something decidedly in between. It is so spot-on that its only because of a few lags and sags in pace that the book gets knocked from a perfect score. If you know somebody working in an office at a job they don’t hate but they also don’t love… this should be their Christmas present.