Joshua Ferris, a graduate of Downers Grove North High School, captures the pathos of office life in his just-released debut novel, Then We Came to the End (Little, Brown). At turns hysterically funny and sad, the novel examines the idiosyncrasies and insularity of the workplace, where officemates, who see each other more than they see their own families, come to anticipate one another’s foibles.
Set in Chicago and partially inspired by Ferris’s experiences at two local ad agencies, the story is told in the first-person plural, eschewing a defined protagonist and turning the language of corporate groupthink back on itself. “Using a wide variety of media, we could demonstrate to our fellow Americans their anxieties, desires, insufficiencies, and frustrations-and how to assuage them all,” Ferris writes. “We informed you in six seconds that you needed something you didn’t know you lacked.” The characters, based on office archetypes any cubicle occupant would recognize, obsess over insignificant minutiae with a frenzy fueled by the end of the dot-com boom.
Ferris, 32, worked at Chicago firms Davis Harrison Dion and Draft Worldwide before receiving his MFA from the University of California, Irvine. He spoke to Chicago by phone from his home in Brooklyn, where he is working on his next novel, as well as several screenplays.
Hear Ferris read from Then We Came to the End March 21st at Borders (2817 N. Clark St.; 773-935-3909); call for time.
Q: First, let’s talk about the novel’s voice. The book is written in the first-person plural “we,” an unconventional narration technique. How did that come about?
A: When I was younger, probably 15 or so, my dad staked off on his own and started his own company. He left a voicemail message that I would call and get from time to time that said, “We’re not here right now, but we’ll get back to you.” But it was just him, a one-man operation. I said, “Who is this we?” As I reflected upon it later, I came to realize that anyone in his position, by necessity, has to do that to project an aura of strength and invulnerability as a spokesperson for a company. It can’t be a small-peanuts operation; it’s got to be something that is comprised by more than one. That fascinated me when I was a kid and stuck with me.
When I entered the business world-working in advertising, reading annual reports-I looked at it more closely and saw that [business people] talked exclusively from that perspective. Companies never talk about an “I,” and with advertisers, there’s always an implied “we” that is either selling you something, or asking you to participate, or be part of a club, or something like that. That was the initial prompt to tell the story of a company from that point of view. And I liked the discrepancy between that official, glossy “we” you see in advertisements and annual reports and memorandum and so forth, and the sloppy antics and personal drama of the people who actually make that “we” up.
Q: Why did you choose Chicago for the novel’s backdrop?
A: I worked in advertising in Chicago, and it was most familiar to me. And Chicago has long had a fabled place in advertising history, and I love Chicago. I think of Chicago as home.
Q: Did your experiences at local ad agencies influence the story?
A: If there’s anything autobiographical about the book, it’s the spirit of the time in which it takes place. I worked through a series of layoffs that came pretty much as a direct result of the drying up of dot-com funds. [I] saw good people get laid off, and witnessed a kind of fiasco of worry and rumor about who was next to go. That informed the book in a way that really doesn’t inform the characters themselves. The characters aren’t really based on anyone, and [they] take on a life of their own once the action gets going. But it’s autobiographical in that it captures a moment in time that I experienced personally.
Q: Where did the idea for the book come from, and how did it evolve?
A: It started as a story that never made it into the book itself. ["More Abandon,” about an office worker who stays late to paw through his co-worker’s desks, was featured in the compilation Best New American Voices 2005.] It evolved beyond the story, which was told in the third person, and I started writing a very different version of the book in ‘99. I didn’t know where to go with it, so I gave it up for a while, started again in 2002, gave it up again in 2003. [From when I started over again,] my composition time was March 2005 to May 2005, so I wrote it in about 14 weeks.
It was very hard to understand how to talk in the first-person plural. There have been other books that have done it and have done it well, The Virgin Suicides [by Jeffrey Eugenides], for example. But this is a slightly different take on it. It wasn’t going to be possible for me to say something along the lines of, “We entered the john and brushed our teeth.” You can’t have a group of people do that all at once; that would be very weird.
So I had to learn the mechanics of communicating a story using that unique point of view. Once I had the voice, I knew what I could include and what I couldn’t. I just kind of went back and forth between the voice and the stories, so that when the more voice-driven passages came to a natural end, I would shift over to the individual stories, and when the individual stories hit a natural culmination, I would shift back into the voice.
Q: The characters fit recognizable office archetypes, but you describe them with affection, not condescension. How did you choose the roles these office characters would fulfill?
A: First, I’m really happy that you think it’s affectionate and not condescending. I find it off-putting when characters are treated in a condescending way.
I didn’t know who the characters were. I knew the archetypes, but I didn’t know exactly how they would act when given the very specific events of the book. If you and I could say, “Oh, there’s the archetype of the middle manager, or the archetype of the gossip, or the archetype of the fill-in-the-blank,” when confronted with the basic events of the story, they had to react as individuals and not as archetypes anymore.
In the progression from archetype to character, that’s where the affection comes in. Where you’re dealing with something surface, it’s easy to pigeonhole and dismiss, based on the type of person you think you’re dealing with. But as you go deeper and deeper, the person takes on complexity and shading that endears you to them-or at least complicates the picture sufficiently so you see you’re dealing with a real human being.
Q: I was struck by the minutiae of office life described in the book. Were these characters’ miseries inspired by real-life experience?
A: I think that’s true; you get very wrapped up [in office minutiae]. Toward the end of the book, there’s an allusion to 9/11. Around the time the book is set, we were coming to the end of, basically, a decade of prosperity and a certain sense of geopolitical victory. The bonuses that came as a result of that, I think, prompted a lot of naïve gibbering that, when put in the context of what happened after 2001, made a lot of the things we concerned ourselves with seem slight. And that was on my mind as I was writing in 2005. While the inflated worth of office minutiae can be seen as trivial, [so do a lot of other things] when put in the perspective of 9/11.
At the same time, that’s why the book doesn’t conclude with 9/11, but has a final chapter showing these people, even though [they’re] not a group anymore, continuing on. The minutiae they endure, the camaraderie, the rivalry: It’s the texture of life, even if it’s trivial-even if it is, at the end of the day, sort of meaningless. It can be fun, it can be rewarding, it can cut the dread of a day, it can generate a sense of community.
I hope the book captures not just the triviality of that, the “fetishizing” of office life, but is also sufficiently entertaining so you realize that, no matter how small-minded some of these people are, this stuff is enjoyable.