Thursday, October 25, 2007

Let's not kid ourselves, it gets really, really bad

Comic, serious novels are all too rare. Richard Russo's Straight Man is one of the finest, but even he focuses more on being serious in his other books. In Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris manages the trick of writing a funny novel that manages to tell a rather depressing story.

The major theme is the love-hate relationship white-collar Americans have with work. The first half of the book consists of anecdotes dealing with the mostly pointless activities that fill the day. Even though nearly all the action takes place in the work day, very little work is shown. Instead, the workers gossip, debate who will get fired next, plan pranks and otherwise fill their time. Which is really not a bad description of most companies I have seen.

Ferris presents the voice of the workers in a first person "we," that is never personalized, truly standing in for the group. This voice switches for two characters, both senior, that are never part of the group. Neither group is attractive. The mass of workers are implicitly and then explicitly compared to high school cliques and bullies, and the individuals voices shut themselves off from any observable real human interaction. Work seems to be killing them, figuratively and literally.

If the writing wasn't so funny, it would be a terribly depressing book. Fortunately the bleak message that work will rarely if ever be a positive element in life is presented in often hilarious ways. It's quite possible that I found it funny merely because it is so similar to places I have worked, but I think Ferris's observations go beyond that.

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