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March 8 2007 7:37 AM

Hell Is Other Cubicles

Joshua Ferris' new novel about work, the great American pastime.

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Other novels, like Americana, rely on the "we" to great effect at times, as one voice speaking for the collective. But this "we" is less a single individual than an amalgam of the group. This gimmick works—not because Ferris' prose is utterly distinctive (it's a little flat) but because the "we" allows him to make a point about individuality in the era of corporate branding (that it doesn't quite exist) on the level of language rather than editorial argument. One day, you're saying, "I'll ask my client about that"; the next, you're uttering, "I'll make the ask." It also lets Ferris move seamlessly from stories about one character to another, showing how one worker accommodates easily to office life, while another finds the malleability of his own identity terrifying. Take Carl, who, sitting in the car one morning with his wife, bursts out in disgust at his own dislike of a co-worker whose daughter was recently murdered: " 'I don't want to be the person that hates Janine Gorjanc. If I go inside [the office] I will be that person because I will smell her. I don't want to have to smell her. If I smell her I will hate her and I don't want to be that person. You have to take me home.' "

What's best about Then We Came to the End isn't the familiar point that the mind is easily colonized by an institution, but Ferris' way of enactingthat colonization. The "we" is always changing its opinions. These employees don't know who they are without the office, and this is in part what confuses them. They don't want to be the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but they suspect they might be. Consider copywriter Chris Yop, who attends a company meeting even after he's been fired ("This meeting's been in my calendar for a long time"). They daydream about fleeing the confines of the office. ("We thought moving to India might be better"), yet they can't bring themselves to give up the benefits. ("We still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately.") The brusque Tom Mota, the office's alpha male—an updated version of the "Trotsky" figure in Americana— has been abandoned by his wife, and now sends whacked-out e-mails to the company quoting Emerson. If Mota labors to remind his fellow white-collar wage slaves that they too have souls, even he is not quite able to believe he is one of those men that Emerson had in mind when he wrote, "For all our penny-wisdom, for all our soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted, that all men have sublime thoughts … "

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And so Ferris gets at the way in which even his characters' gestures toward discontentment, rebelliousness, and individuality get co-opted somehow. Unlike the 1950s organization man who couldn't fully express his ambivalence about the pro-loyalty mentality of his time , the 1990s worker bee is heavily ironic about "The Man" and armed with more rhetoric about "personal fulfillment" and the necessity of preserving some distance between himself and his job. But the hyper-self-awareness of being a drone is only a superficial liberation: They're still stuck in a form of groupthink, busy having fun looking down on those who don't dress well ("He wore off-brand, too-tight jeans and generic tennis shoes, which, to us, conveyed the extent to which he'd given up").

That's why they all become obsessed with the plight of Lynn Mason, their remote and intimidating boss, who may or may not have breast cancer: If they can turn their voyeuristic curiosity into genuine compassion ("only connect," as it were), they will have proved to themselves that they still have souls. "By choosing not to tell us that she had cancer, she had cheated us of one of our most dearly held illusions—namely, that we were not present strictly for the money, but could also be concerned about the well-being of those around us." (In one chapter, Ferris abandons the "we" to explore, in the first-person, Mason's inner life, a choice that struck me as an effective juxtaposition.) The trajectory of her story is one of the most interesting elements of the book, partly because it dramatizes the way bristly and nuanced forms of empathy flourish even in the thin, recycled air of office life.

The book has its flaws—it's far too long, for one thing—but one reason Then We Came to the End is notable is that few young American writers seem truly interested in the workplace. This is strange, because the workplace offers up precisely the kind of large-scale thematic questions that marriage once provided: To what degree does it shape us—our language, our values, our identity? What is most striking about Ferris' take is that, for all the hype we've heard about how dramatically the workplace has changed in our contemporary era of greater labor mobility (one that has also seen the influx of women and the advent of the computer), not all that much seems different in the industry Ferris depicts. Indeed, stripped of references to the Internet, Then We Came to the End could almost be set in the 1950s of Revolutionary Road or the 1960s of Americana, driving home that in many industries, the continuities are far more striking than the differences. Perhaps in the era of the professionalization of writing itself, many novelists have avoided chronicling the subtleties of office life because it's not perceived as "literary"—or because they have no experience of it. But as Then We Came to the End begins to suggest, it is one of the richest settings of our time.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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