Sometimes a simple question like ‘What do you do for a living?’ can carry a multitude of meanings. A job is a reflection of a personal choice and therefore, people are inclined to judge others by what they do for a living. So when do personal and public lives collide and when should we separate ourselves from our work? Anyone who has ever had a job sees themselves reflected in the hilarious and satirical debut novel ‘Then We Came to the End,’ written by UC Irvine graduate Joshua Ferris.
On Wednesday, April 11, the UCI Bookstore hosted an author’s reading event in which students, faculty and the public participate in an evening of literary gratification. The event is part of an ongoing program that allows UCI alumni writers to promote their newly published work while allowing the community to tap into undiscovered talents. Joshua Ferris was no exception, and the young writer mesmerized his audience by reading a particularly touching passage from his book about how sometimes work lives becomes personal lives.
‘Then We Came to an End’ unfolds during the peak of the dot-com bust when egos were as big as paychecks. With a first-person plural narration, the reader comes to know and love each character through petty office gossips, co-worker interactions and their private secrets. There is Karen Woo, the self-titled food elitist that associates lunch breaks with a religious rite rather than an occupational privilege. Joe Pope is a man everyone loves to hate because of his rigorous work ethic and detachment from inter-office gossip carried on by Karen and others. Genevieve, who is pregnant with Joe’s baby ‘is not yet showing,’ but everyone knows about her. Carl leaves messages for his wife to pay more attention to him as she is chatting away with clients on her cell phone, and Tom Mota is the ominous black cloud who hovers over everyone and evokes the fear of being fired.
Beginning at the end of the plot, Tom’s layoff, Ferris moves the story along through detailed descriptions of the hatred that each character feels toward their job and how it conflicts with the attachment that binds these groups of strangers together. He combines ironic humor with realistic human emotions to make the mundane repetition of work relatable and even, at times, endearing. Racing swivel chairs and playing harmless intra-office pranks are a part of this advertisement agency’s life and secrets revealed during conversations on a smoking break become common knowledge by lunchtime.
From the top executives and managers to the night guard and janitor, no archetype is untouched by Ferris’ satirical observation and none of them can escape from the malicious word-of-mouth that binds them to each other.
During last week’s event, Ferris chose a passage about Lynn Mason, a partner of the firm who refuses to let breast cancer stereotype her as a victim. His reading touched audiences on a very humanistic level while they listened to Ferris’ voice transform the narration of a high-powered woman who suffers from a fear of the hospital. What is so talented about this writer is his versatility to jump into multiple personalities without losing the novel’s overall humor and heart.
He incorporates his own past experiences working in a Chicago advertisement agency to make their experiences come alive, yet maintains a critical perspective through their interactions, suggesting that what seems to be intimate relationships are really superficial and delicate.
Ferris describes his book as ‘a mirroring of how life works and how the office works.’ He points out that we learn about someone through repetitive encounters, slowly building our familiarity with those around us, and that is how we come to ‘know’ our co-workers. For a book about nothing but how boring work can be, Joshua Ferris does a superb job representing the voices of the average working Joe. With insight and hilarious cynicism, the reader easily becomes a part of a perpetual intra-office game of telephone that makes his characters irresistible.