Monday, March 30, 2009

Empty at the Office - Book #3

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is the story of an advertising agency facing an economic downturn in 2001.  The copywriters aren't handling their pending unemployment well.  They know each other better than their own family members, and their desperation to keep their jobs seems to be more about maintaining relationships with their quirky co-workers than it is about maintaining income.

This novel is immensely funny and brilliantly constructed.  The entire story is narrated by one of the agency copywriters who refers to himself or herself (the reader is never given the gender) as "we".  Ferris deviates from this voice once, and in that section we hear the perspective of the copywriters' boss.  In a way, the book is very Don Quixote - esque.  Many times there are stories within a story that are within another story.  In other words, this isn't easy comic strip reading; ya gotta get some brains on to read it.

Like I said, the book is hilarious.  If you've ever spent time in an office, you will be laughing out loud and you will realize that any television series centering on workplace happenings pales in comparison to Ferris's humor.  Life isn't all fun and games, and, as life would have it, things get a little dark.  There are many places in the book where the reader can pause and ponder life's important questions.  Three of my favorites follow:

"Some people would never forget certain people, a few people would remember everyone, and most of us would mostly be forgotten.  Sometimes it was for the best.  Larry Novotny wanted to be forgotten for his dalliance with Amber Ludwig.  Tom Mota wanted to be forgotten for that incident involving the paintballs.  But did anybody want to be forgotten about completely?  We had dedicated years to that place, we labored under the notion we were making names for ourselves, we had to believe in our hearts that each one of us was memorable.  And yet who wanted to be remembered for their poor taste or bad breath?  Still, better to be remembered for those things than forgotten for your perfect par-boiled blandness."

"We had nothing in common with the dying and so never knew what to say to them.  Our presence seemed a vague and threatening insult, something that could easily spill over into cruel laughter, and so we chose our words carefully and moved with caution gathering around the bed and restricted our jokes and bantering."

"Some days felt longer than other days.  Some days felt like two whole days.  Unfortunately those days were never weekend days.  Our Saturdays and Sundays passed in half the time of a normal workdays.  In other words, some weeks it felt like we worked ten straight days and had only one day off.  We could hardly complain.  Time was being added to our lives."

When you read this book, you'll come to know the characters as well as you know the people with whom you spend the majority of your waking hours.  And you'll realize that every single one of the them, both in the book and in your office, is looking for significance.  My question is this:  when individuals seek significance through a career, do they come up empty?  How about you?  Does your work at the office fill you up?  Are the "free bagels in the morning" really all they are cracked up to be?  Or does your work, as significant to society as it may be, leave you, like the copywriters and April Wheeler, feeling empty?

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