Hell Is Other Cubicles
Joshua Ferris' new novel about work, the great American pastime.
This column launches an occasional feature in which Slate will name a debut of the monthfor your consideration.
Some years back, I worked for a large American corporation that moved to a new building, gathering its satellite offices into a single Death Star. My new office bordered the area allotted to a "task group" that appeared to have little work to do. Its members spent most of their time complaining that the new location didn't match the sublimity of their previous boom-era pad. It had possessed an enormous tank filled with exotic fish, which, alas, Human Resources had refused to transport to the Death Star. One afternoon, a member of this group poked his head in my office and, in elated tones, told me they had won the battle, if not the war: They'd been granted a modest new aquarium by Human Resources—and would I like to see it? I joined them for a root beer—and found him and his co-workers milling around a glass aquarium about 3 feet long. It was empty. "Where are the fish?" I asked. "Oh, they're not here yet," he replied. "But isn't this thrilling?"
Ah, the doldrums of office life: so pervasive, yet so easily alleviated by doses of modest, company-sponsored delight. This mood—or rhythm, really—is adroitly captured in Joshua Ferris' funny debut novel, Then We Came to the End. It explores the relationship between individual identity and the hive, joining a venerable, if still short, list of modern American novels about work: Joseph Heller's Something Happened, Don DeLillo's Americana (from which the title and more is borrowed), Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, George Saunders' short story collections, and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road,among others. Ferris is interested in whether American workaholism—we work on average 300 hours more a year than the Germans do, for example—deforms not only our posture but our souls. Do we become who we work for? And does that matter?
Set in an ad agency in Chicago, Then We Came to the End chronicles, in ironized, meandering style, the company's bumpy transition from the glory days of the Internet boom ("[t]he world was flush with Internet cash, and we got our fair share of it") to the austere months following the stock market crash of April 2000. The agency embarks on a series of layoffs that provide the ostensible plot engine, but Ferris absorbs us with close observations of life lived under fluorescent lights: "How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, all the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned to 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 again." Like their Dunder-Mifflin counterparts, the employees at this agency salivate when they hear there are free bagels, argue over the rightful ownership of a coveted office chair, and fret over the fact that their lives consist of making people want to buy cold sore remedies. But they also take pride in their accomplishments, and Ferris infuses his characters with a humanized peculiarity that complicates his view enough to keep it from seeming over-familiar.
What ties the novel together is the canny formal choice Ferris has made: his decision to write the novel in the first-person plural. There is no single "narrator." Rather, a group of workers relates the story, reconceiving 19th-century omniscience as a gossipy group consciousness:
When, a few weeks later, [the company] let go of Jim Jackers, we said they lifted him off his seat by the middle belt loop of his jeans and threw him from the building. We said he went flying three stairs at a time until he landed on the curb, where he picked himself up and checked his forehead for blood.
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.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.