Then We Came to the End

I have no idea why I read cube-lit. That wierd American sub-genre of contemporary fiction which is set in and revolves around working for a company.  I really enjoyed Microserfs, for example, in part because I recognised the work-geek stereotypes being presented. (Since then, there has been the IT Crowd which takes the Silicon Valley of Microserfs and dumps it in a British basement, making it a lot funnier.)

Then We Came to the End
Joshua Ferris
(Penguin, 2008)

I’m also a sucker for 3-for-2 offers, often ending up with one extra book I wasn’t desperate to own but which I thought was worth picking as the freebie. Then We Came to the End is such a book.  The cubes and offices are in an advertising agency going through a bout of layoffs as a downturn bites (based on the technology they use, I think it’s the dot-com bubble‘s burst). Given my enjoyment of ad agency settings (Mad Men, Murder Must Advertise etc) as well as cube-lit, it should be a winner.

I did enjoy it: the petty workplace habits are well-observed and there was a rather neat device for the ‘lit’ part of the ‘cube-lit’ tag. The novel is told in first person plural (‘we’*), which serves to make the reader complicit in the vile gang of characters’ activities. If they take against someone, the suggestion is that we, as readers, also do.  Of course, as readers we also see outside the cube’s walls – we can see that just because ‘we’ don’t like a guy it doesn’t mean that guy is actually unlikeable. We as readers become the silent complicit partners in the time-wasting, pettiness and bullying ‘we’ do: we become the person who sees the unfairness but doesn’t speak up and thus allows it to escalate.

One chapter in the middle breaks this, the only chapter to step outside the office environs, and moves to third person singular. Later, back in the first person plural, ‘we’ attend a book reading by a former colleague and he starts with the first line of that person-breaking middle chapter.

And yet, three weeks after I finished it, I can’t remember all the details. Despite being dragged into the fiction through that all-inclusive pronoun, I don’t recall the names of the characters. So I’d recommend it to most office workers as, like most cube-lit, you get the kick of recognition and it races along quite nicely.  A good commuting read.

*aside: in Who fandom, there is a nasty habit of calling fans ‘we’ and everyone else in the world ‘not-we’ – it’s taken from one of the more philosophical early 80s stories but manages to come over like the vile ‘we’ in this novel. Just saying.

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