Great American Novel puts ad office under microscope
by Rob Neufeld
Nearly 40% of American adults work in office complexes, where they spend a third of their lives. Yet, when you look at how fiction holds up a mirror to reality, you have to wonder about the don’t-bring-your-work-home blind spot.
Where, in literature, is our “Moby Clerk,” “House of the Seven Staples,” and “To Cancel a Mockingbird”?
In 1922, Sinclair Lewis published “Babbitt,” a bleak novel about a man going through the motions of dutifulness in a real estate office; and in 1974, Joseph Heller published “Something Happened,” a hilarious novel about a man seeking a promotion.
Now, add to the list, “Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris’ 385-page cock-eyed look at an ad agency being down-sized.
One book discussion group took up the novel as food for thought, and had a good meal. I recommend others do, too. See about discussions in the area.
“I had to slog through the first hundred pages, but then came that middle section, and it was all worth it,” one reader reported about “Then We Came.”
He was referring to the breakthrough of humanity that revealed the ad agency’s endemic cynicism to have been part of a process.
The workers themselves knew they were jaded. Ha-ha, old Brizz had cancer and was put on a “Celebrity Death Watch.” Office mates bet on when he would die, and he knew about the hard-shelled game. That’s pretty rough satire.
Meanwhile, staff members fretted over being caught with a chair with a different serial number than what they’d been given; made great efforts to find meaning in life, as when Benny inherited a totem pole from old Brizz; and felt euphoric when they were transferred to a better office space.
How much of corporate and bureaucratic life is like this, even a little? Does one get caught up in one’s culture, except for when there are disquieting moments of truth?
“Might it be true,” the narrator (a collective “we”) says, “that we were callous, unfeeling individuals...We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from out better selves.”
I remember when, early in my career, I was working in an office to earn money to pay for school; and a veteran of that workplace said to me, “People never make it out of here. They think they’re going to, but they never do.”
You can see how mythic that had sounded to me.
There were two workers there, a Russian Jewish woman and a Persian woman (it had been dangerous to identify as an Iranian at that time), who had radically different temperature needs, and spent each day pushing up and pushing down windows.
That was pretty absurd.
In book discussions, I encourage people to bring up their personal experiences in order to apply reality tests to the book at hand, and to question and learn from its approach.
Sure, “Then We Came” takes place in a Chicago ad agency, and that brings in themes that might not apply to other jobs: the psychology of consumer society; the nature of being creative within a corporation; and the feeling of being part of an elite. Still, those in less privileged environments have to ask, “Are our workplaces sick? Are they performing below potential? Are workers often deprived of purpose and pride?”
In 1972, Studs Terkel published “Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and how They Feel about What They Do.” It’s a good companion volume to the novel at hand.
The desk jockeys who people Ferris’ world eventually come to their senses; or rather, come to know their hearts. You can’t say, “come to their senses,” because one of the most feeling characters goes coo-coo.
The first sign that Tom Mota is rebelling against the establishment is when he shows up wearing multiple corporate-logo Polo shirts, out of fierce loyalty, he indicates. Then he gets on someone else’s computer and sends an all-agency email that reads, “My name is Shaw-NEE! You are captured, Ha! I poopie I poopie I poopie.”
His “insanity” rises heroically to the occasion when a billboard image of a co-worker’s lost daughter stays up weeks after the girl has been found dead. The billboard company has no new contract and it costs money to take an old ad down. Tom takes things into his own hands, irritating the media buyers.
He’s let go from the company. His role in a stunning climactic scene is one example of Ferris’ ability to create an original, suspenseful plot, full of irony, truth, and pathos.
The ah moment
The previously noted humanity that breaks through midway in the book is both an emotional plot development and a brilliant stylistic coup.
Lynn Mason, the ad agency’s co-founder, has cancer. She’s denying it publicly because she knows her staff. They’ll make it the grit of their rumor mill—actually, they’ll do that anyway, based on apprehensions, and leavened by pangs of concern.
Lynn has kept the office occupied with a perhaps made-up assignment to create a PSA that would make a cancer patient laugh about his or her condition.
Ferris then shifts from the office view of life to Lynn’s view, told in the third person. Lynn’s lover, a man we suspect might be a commitment-avoider, helps Lynn overcome her childhood-rooted fear of hospitals, and turns in one of the great compassionate scenes in fiction.
We then return to the office, and of course, everything has changed, only partly and gradually in the minds of the employees, but totally in the minds of us readers.
Follow Rob Neufeld @WNC_chronicler.