Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Then We Came to What Exactly?

I have high expectations for fiction. I want stories that are exceptionally well written, offering up a unique way with words as subtle and gripping as the performances of the best musicians. I want deep characters who propel plot and are not merely propelled by the plot. And I want a story that is compelling to read, that is not bleak for the sake of bleakness, clever for the sake of cleverness or so self-possessed as to be terminally boring.

That said, my tastes aren’t particularly divergent from the usual cohort of reviewers and awards panels. I usually like most well-reviewed and/or award-winning books and, if I don’t, I at least understand what other people saw in them. But I am at a loss to explain the acclaim received by Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End.

The trick of this workplace novel is that it’s told in first person plural. The use of “we” is apparently designed to make us feel part of this group of characters but it generally made me feel as if the novel had no center, no one character or characters for whom I was inclined to root. Instead, we get a whole novel featuring secondary characters, almost all of whom are petty, annoying, paranoid, frightened little people devoid of anything but the most transient of heroic or even noble characteristics. They are “real” in the sense that they are believable but they are not compelling.

Normally I’d lay a book like this down after 100 pages, but the novel’s acclaimed status as well as the thought that “certainly these characters will redeem themselves” kept me reading. I wanted to find out what became of these people but, at the end, I was disappointed with how little anyone had changed despite the histrionics throughout the novel. I suppose that’s how things are in the real world – slight shifts, small turns – but I expect more oomph from a story. I expect more consequence.

The writing itself is decent with some excellent turns of phrase, some keen observations and some nicely funny moments (although it’s not nearly humorous as reviews would have you believe). But for the most part the writing is flat with all the economy of a Hemmingway but little of the poignancy. The first twenty pages are so devoid of style that I’m guessing Ferris had the good fortune of never having to get this piece by a first reader. If I think “I write better than that,” there’s clearly a problem. My usual reaction to a good book is “I’ll never be that good.”

As for the plot, it’s about an ad agency that’s going under in 2001 and how the tide of layoffs is affecting the staff (the “we”). Maybe to all the reviewers who’ve spent very little of their life in an office, this was a revelation, a peek into the pathetic yet strangely vibrant lives of office drones. To me, it was mundane – even the parts that dealt with life and death seemed somewhat ordinary. I desperately wanted to be moved by these people and their circumstance but I just couldn’t bring myself to truly care. A plot driven by the need not to get fired (or not to stop working) is a weak basis for a story. Our lives have far more dramatic moments, which is why the office novel is a less-than-vital literary subset.

If the novel had received little notice, I probably would have enjoyed it as a nice diversion, some fun little stories about some odd little people. But with acclaim comes greater critique and I can’t say this was a noteworthy work of fiction. Good, sure. Great, not so much.

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