May 16, 2010


by Joshua Ferris
416 pages, Little, Brown

Review by Maria Bustillos

This tender, funny, wonderfully wrought debut is a comedy of office life, and I suspect that most anybody who has ever worked in an office will find its themes and vibe almost weirdly familiar. We already have a lot of popular stories on the office theme, from Something Happened to Babbitt to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit; on the other hand, we also have The Office, Office Space, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Then we Came to the End hews far closer to the ethos of popular television shows about office life, with their wacky-dysfunctional-family atmosphere, than it does to the often savage, bitter treatment the subject has more commonly received in American novels.

The book’s greatest charm is in the warmth and attention to detail given to the development of a richly imagined group of characters. The action takes place in an advertising agency; we meet Joe, the enigmatic, bike-riding workaholic whose office wall has been mysteriously defaced, Lynn, the crisply confident boss who can resolve any crisis, but whose own world is full of secret sorrows; Benny, the office wag, whose endless stories mesmerize his officemates as hypnotically as they do the reader. There are many more; really a ton more, and all of them clearly, crisply drawn. Mr. Ferris’s treatment of this motley crew is optimistic and forgiving, though he is quick, too, with a well-placed laconic barb.

A second strength is his keenly accurate portrayal of the “dot-bomb” world’s colossal hangover ca. April 2001, when the boom went bust. Having had a front-row seat at that sad series of events myself, I can attest to the blurry sense of disbelief, the sort of neverending slow-motion trainwreck we endured as millions of hopes and plans and jobs and dollars disappeared as if they’d been vaporized off the face of the earth. Ferris’s depiction of that mess is particularly bittersweet to read now, when things have grown a good deal worse in a lot of ways.

There’s a draggy bit about two-thirds of the way through that veers too near the maudlin for me, but Ferris recovers neatly by the end with some clever and moving touches that left this reader well content. It’s just about the perfect book for summer travel—light, airy, smart and captivating.

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