Then
We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s excellent debut, follows in the tradition of office novels  by devoting the vast majority of its pages to
people who are fed up with their every-day white-collar work. It is set at the
turn of the current century, when the implosion of the dot-com economy is
claiming collateral victims down the fluorescent-paneled halls of a Chicago
advertising firm. Clients are fleeing, projects are drying up and management is
firing
people as they see fit. The layoffs come without
warning and — in keeping with good, brutal legal practice —
with no rationale as to why any person was let go.

In the midst of this crisis, the
agency receives a pro bono assignment from a mysterious client, a breast-cancer
awareness group with no detectable presence on the Internet or elsewhere. The
request is enormously
difficult: an ad that will make breast-cancer sufferers laugh about their
disease. (The assignment becomes more fraught, and suspicious, when a rumor
begins to circulate that Lynn Mason, the employees’ reserved, arch supervisor,
has breast cancer herself.) The staff members complain about the campaign and mock it
— and above all, work on it desperately, in hope of being the one to knock it
out of the park. “We all had the same prayer: please let it be me.”

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However, about halfway through the
book, Ferris adds a thoughtful, less cynical twist when he takes us out of the
office and home with Lynn, who is also struggling. Her problems are much more
serious; typically, though, as soon as we’re back inside and chained to our
desks, they fade in the shock of Marcia Dwyer’s new haircut and the totally
weird way Janine Gorjanc’s been acting lately. But Lynn, with her quiet
confidence, embodies and articulates the fear of the axe in a way her
terror-stricken employees can only fumble at.

It’s hard to work out, in the end, whether
Ferris’s novel is funny or sad. It’s certainly absurd, and very entertaining.
And it hums with the suppressed emotions of colleagues forced
to interact professionally in an unnatural, stressful environment – anger,
lust, envy, boredom, contempt, sometimes even love. 

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