Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

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Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A collective of advertising men encounter a hard task in a comedy of work-place errors that is sparkling while falling flat on its face with a gross misjudgement.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: January 2008
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141027630

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This is a comedy of the workplace, with a lot we will recognise. There are four floors of offices in this tower block used by this company, and only one electric pencil sharpener among them, that no-one can locate and everyone wants to use. The email system is subject to daily abuse. There are too many meetings, and not enough seats in the canteen, so someone has to be the pariah of perching by the sink and passing out the condiments.

This is an advertising firm, what's more, so there are less recognisable but obvious jokes to be had about the cold sore spots. And, a company that is going downhill fast - someone has been sacked and everyone fears he might come back and go postal, another gets the drop and stays on anyway, working as hard as he can to keep his non-existent job.

And what are they working on, in this comedy of work-place manners? Well, I say working - they are merely floundering, as a group and individually, because they are limited to doing a pro bono campaign wherein they have to find the comedic potential in cancer.

Before I go further reviewing this paperback I will just point out that the hardback has enough blurb on its fly-leaves, and not one mention of that as the major subject of the book. I wonder why? If there is anything more unfunny than a bunch of jumped-up ad-men trying to work on making cancer funny, it is surely a comedy book about the same.

Questions are raised in the offices - and obviously in the reader - as to why they are working on this campaign; it might well have to do with one of the partners in the company with a breast lump she has been ignoring. Add in a totem pole being inherited and you really must wonder where on earth this book is heading.

Luckily, there is a lot going for the writing. Most special in the style is the use of the plural second person - the narrator refers to "we" and "us" as a collective of the admen and women in the company, as opposed to the dozen or so named - and sketchily drawn, if quite well crafted - characters. This breaks down with an entr'acte, which reverts to the third person, and is completely different for having a great humanity in the writing, with intimacy, a personal touch and much superior characterisation involved.

The writing also does well regarding the comedy side of things, despite my huge reservations about the subject matter. The more gag-orientated lines are here in a nice cyclical rhythm, and I won't over-play the routine of the working day emerging through the patterns of the book, as somebody cleverer than me picked up on it in a cover quote, but it does happen. It's a clever read, and never clever-clever, thankfully.

Elsewhere the writing does falter a little, with many chapters getting a quick resume of some of what has gone before, which is the only instance of dumbing down, and reminds us a little of an American sitcom. So, coming as I do to comparisons, this book was also notably different to a British take on the same subject - the characters use first names, the ad execs are notably drug-free (apart from one idiot taking someone else's prescription anti-depressants), and they slum it at lunch-time (TGI Friday's, MacDonalds in one memorable situation). I'll leave it to the reader to decide which approach might be more refreshing - the Chicago or the London setting.

I will carry on with cross-references, because this features a lot in common with E: A Novel, which is a very different way of doing this kind of book. And it also, due to the complete clanger of the big C, comes across as a bit like The Office. Imagine a Ricky Gervais character being completely un-PC and detrimental to cancer sufferers and take away any sense of commonality, sympathy, empathy or just plain liking for the character. What you are left with has a link to what we have here.

There is nothing so out-and-out unsubtle as an authorial voice pointing out the ridiculousness of these callous, work-hardened dolts and dullards working on a lost cause, and there is a lot of the book that does branch away from the unlikeable subject of cancer - and away from the totem pole. I might be being too sensitive, as well, but I really did not enjoy the subject being used as it was here, and especially as I was reading from the hardback and was not forewarned.

There is a great future for this young debut novelist, if only he gets better ideas and/or advice about what is acceptable. I found a lot to admire in much of the writing, but never have I encountered a book I found so much to enjoy in, that was let down by one huge error of judgement. I am left with no idea as to whether I should recommend the book or not.

Sue 'enjoyed' Ferris's The Unnamed with its look at mental illness.

Booklists.jpg Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2008.

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