I knew by the end of the first week that my latest technical writing job would not go well. I was assigned a desk—which I refused to sit at—in the middle of a heavily trafficked corridor rather than in an office, or even in one of the many vacant cubicles with wobbly particleboard walls. When I asked for a mouse to plug into the dusty low-end computer I had been given, my boss said, “I had a day today, too. Deal with it.” On that first Friday, I attended a company meeting, where, in front of all 100 employees, the head of Information Technology, a man I had not met, stood up, pointed to me, and asked the president of the firm, “What do we need him for?” Several software programmers nodded their agreement.
Antipathy toward technical writers was a phenomenon I had experienced many times before. But this was hostility of a whole other order.
I could regale you with lots of horror stories of the software industry, from the developer who used to come to my desk and loudly ask, “So what document no one will ever read are we paying you to write today?” to the CEO who tried to bully me into falsely billing customers. (I refused and quit.) The point is that I didn’t enjoy my fifteen years as a technical writer. I made friends, but I remember those years today as a period of constant conflict and little camaraderie.
As I read Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s fine novel about layoffs at an advertising agency in Chicago, I couldn’t help comparing the office atmosphere depicted in the book to those I have known. What struck me most was the novel’s warmth: the concern for dismissed colleagues, the teamwork in the face of tight deadlines, the trading of anecdotes and sharing of personal stories. Many of the passages in this episodic book deal with bleak subjects—breast cancer, failed marriages, the death of a child—but Ferris writes them with perceptiveness and affection for his creations. Adding to the feeling of camaraderie is that Ferris tells his story mostly in the first-person plural, a clever device that makes the story gossipy and intimate and makes us feel as if we, too, are part of this collective.
As good as the book is, however, two aspects of it disappointed me. The first is that, for all the book’s talk of input meetings and ad campaigns and the rush to meet deadlines, it isn’t really about work. Ferris uses the workplace not so much to dramatize what it was like to work at a corporation in the early 21st Century but as a device for giving us small, Cheeveresque portraits of middle-class Americans. Much of the book is a series of domestic traumas that take place outside the office. They’re interesting and well written but not quite the take on corporate America I had hoped for. It feels at times as if Ferris didn’t have enough to say about the corporate environment and padded his story with scenes that one might find in a family drama.
Which leads to my second disappointment. As I read the book, I thought: I have never had a work experience like this. These people are too nice to one another, too caring. Sure, there are disputes, and this character can’t stand that one, but you don’t see the ruthlessness and cold-heartedness that can govern office politics. I assume from this novel and from interviews that Ferris, who worked in advertising, liked his job, and good for him if he did. But his happiness may have kept him from writing the indictment that, based on my limited and admittedly jaundiced experience, the corporate world deserves, one that I suspect is closer to reality for many workers.
Early in the book, we learn that one of the characters, a copywriter named Hank Neary, is writing a “small, angry book about work”. His colleagues chide him: “Now there was a guaranteed best seller. There was a fun read on the beach.” Perhaps. We won’t know how many people would purchase a dark, literary novel of corporate life unless somebody publishes one. But it seems to me that the truest depiction of business in America would be one that is neither satiric like The Office nor angry like Hank’s manuscript but clear-eyed and unflinching, an un-sugared pill, much like J.M. Coetzee’s bleak, beautiful novels of South Africa.
Still, given the dearth of good fiction about the workplace, the publication of Then We Came to the End is an occasion to celebrate. Joshua Ferris is a talented and versatile writer, as his follow-up novel The Unnamed proves. It seems unlikely, however, that his success will lead to a glut of thoughtful novels about office life. That’s a pity, as I’ll bet there’s an audience for them.