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July 3, 2012

“Then We Came To The End”

by Anne Paddock
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There are many books about families and the dysfunction inherent in the groups we were born into but not many books are written about the workplace where people choose to spend at least a third of their day (with the other third devoted to family and friends and the remaining third supposedly sleeping). Workplaces become a microcosm of a family – a big family – and are full of dysfunctional and odd characters who can be hilarious, annoying, intimidating but also endearing.  Enter the employees of a well-known Chicago advertising agency in the fictional novel “Then We Came To The End” by Joshua Ferris.

A finalist for the National Book Award , “Then We Came To The End,” is written in the first person plural, as if the author and the reader are part of the cast of characters in this very humorous and entertaining novel. In interviews, Ferris admits writing the story in this voice because most corporate employees refer to themselves as “we” to indicate they are all part of a unified club where assimilation and teamwork are rewarded.

Think “30 Rock” and “The Office” – with every screwball, nutcase, eccentric, oddball, and looney character that ever existed and you have “Then We Came To The End.”  The story begins with a look back to the millennium when times were good and money was flowing into the 60th floor of an ad agency located on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Most of the 25-odd employees in the agency were focused on having fun, telling stories, and talking about each other.  Gathering in offices, wasting time, and having lunch were daily pastimes for this group of characters as they clearly did not like not knowing something even if they hated the person who kept them informed. Nothing was sacred and no one was immune from the office gossip lines and forged alliances.

The economy slowed and ad dollars fell off sharply leading to cutbacks and layoffs and this is the struggle primarily portrayed in the novel. The author uses the phrase “walking Spanish” to mean that someone has been let go  and “polishing the turd” to describe the copywriter and art director’s final edits to an ad that gets so watered down by a client  that everything interesting about it disappears. These are the sacrifices and compromises made to keep the agency from shutting its doors.

The beauty of this novel is in the detail and the day-to-day lives of the 25 odd characters whose struggles intertwine. In the beginning of the book, the reader is horrified by the ensemble of characters in all their weirdness. By the middle of the book, the reader feels like a part of the group:   rejoicing in the just desserts administered to some, admonishing the mean antics of others and empathizing with the weak and unwell. And by the end of the novel when everything is considered, it’s the reader and the author or as the author says, it’s “just the two of us, you and me” and somehow that feels just right.

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