All in a day's work
Ferris gives voice to office tyrants and flunkies
Then We Came to the End, the debut novel by Joshua Ferris which has—deservedly—inspired so much prepublication buzz? It's the book that Ferris was sure would be locked away in a desk drawer forever. The sort of fledgling first effort a young novelist never returns to, perhaps recycles when he moves to a new apartment. Or burns.
"I thought this would be my burned-drawer book," Ferris says during a call to his home in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. He and his wife moved to Brooklyn in 2003, after she had finished law school and he had completed his M.F.A. at the University of California at Irvine. She had a clerkship with a judge in Manhattan. He had won the Glenn Schaeffer Prize, which gives a substantial monetary grant to an emerging writer, allowing him to continue work on the book for a year or so without worrying about income. But Ferris soon "found the book wanting," put it in a drawer and started something new. "Then about a year later I had a real revelation about why it was that I had failed at it. And I got the first two sentences in my head."
The original version had been Ferris' "angry novel about work," based on his experiences working in an advertising agency in Chicago after earning his B.A. at the University of Iowa. "I never did advertising that was particularly sexy. I was more a news-letter and bill-insert man," Ferris says wryly. He apparently compensated for the routine nature of his work by conceiving a book that had a "far more fantastical and ambitious and unmanageable storyline."
Then We Came to the End is a much funnier, truer and wiser book "about work and the people who do the work" than its avatar. It tells the story of how a collection of go-getters, slackers, know-it-alls, petty tyrants, individualists and water-cooler gossips typical in offices throughout the land behave and misbehave when facing layoffs during an economic downturn. One of the many large pleasures of this novel is to see this collection of office archetypes gradually emerge as believable, often captivating, individual characters.
"With sufficient distance from work, I realized what I missed—the community that work provides, the feeling of identification, people stopping by your desk and asking you to go to lunch," Ferris says, explaining his change of disposition. He also realized "that along with those communal aspects, work provides a paycheck, puts the kids through college and takes care of the mortgage. With all of those things under threat, I could allow my characters to act in ways that were both more dire and also more reflective of the real value of work, of the office itself, and of the people we work with."
The most daring aspect of Then We Came to the End is that Ferris tells his tale from the first person plural point of view. This choral voice is technically difficult. But the effect here is both exhilarating and thought-provoking.
"I strongly believe there is a sort of subterranean, elusive voice that burbles up from any group," Ferris, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy, says. "Even in a group of two you can tap into a groupthink mentality that is given voice by members of the group. You see this in religion, in politics and certainly in advertising, where there is always an implied if not explicit 'we' that represents the company's message to you the consumer. If you spend enough time within a group this voice comes through in a weird canine frequency. Given that the book is set in advertising, it was sort of a no-brainer that that was how this book had to be told. And the group dynamic versus the individual, the group's assumptions versus the individual's assertions was always really important to me as I was thinking about the work dynamic."
Ferris says that once he had the voice and resumed working on the novel, it took him only about 14 weeks to complete it, even though 95 percent of the writing was new. He and his wife and their two cats have recently moved into a new, more spacious apartment not far from the one in which he wrote Then We Came to the End. The new apartment is cold on the day we speak; Ferris says he is "bundled in about 15 layers." In the old, presumably warmer, apartment Ferris wrote in a nook in the middle of a railroad flat. "My poor, long-suffering wife had to crawl over the piles of the book if she wanted to go to the bedroom. If she wanted to go to the bathroom or the kitchen, she had to move through me," Ferris says.
The piles of the book were the large sheets of graph paper he composes on. "When I know what I'm going to write about, I tend to overwrite, be too explanatory, leave no room for the reader's imagination to meet me halfway. But when I write something I didn't anticipate that takes me in a direction I didn't know I was going in and follow it to its logical conclusion, I feel that's a keeper."
"These long broad sheets physically allow me to move around. If something isn't improvisational enough I'll switch to another quadrant of the pad." Ferris later transcribes and revises what he's written onto his computer.
During the 14-week flurry that produced Then We Came to the End, Ferris worked 14 to 16 hours a day, every day. " It was the best and worst experience ever," Ferris says. "For the first two or three weeks I knew I could write the book but I didn't have anything substantial down on paper. I didn't want to go out and run in case I got hit by a car. I stayed inside and ordered from Brooklyn restaurants, which was probably actually more risky for my heart."
Now at work on a new book, Ferris continues to devote long hours to writing. "I have always said that I have absolutely no talent, but a tremendous amount of discipline," he says.
Readers of Ferris' marvelous debut novel won't believe that "no talent" bit. Not one whit.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland.