Wage Slaves in Their Natural Habitat

030507 article book bobrow Wage Slaves in Their Natural HabitatOffice life—that Beckettian game of Whac-a-Mole—is the subject of Then We Came to the End, an amusing debut novel from Joshua Ferris. Told in the collective first-person, a know-it-all “we” (like The Virgin Suicides), this is a book about the disposable, often awkward, sometimes precious, usually tedious moments of the workday. “How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers …. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again.” Mr. Ferris has our number. He smells our fear, our vulnerability. The life of an office worker— the diner lunches, the ergonomic chairs, the brainstorm meetings and water-cooler gossip—is defined by ambivalence. It’s lined with a richly insidious comfort: There’s no such thing as a free morning bagel.

Mr. Ferris begins his book in the halcyon days of the dot-com boom. The employer is an unnamed advertising company. Jobs are secure, benefits generous and career fulfillment a luxury everyone can afford. “We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.”

But then the economy sours, clients dry up, and the company starts letting people go. The layoffs begin as a steady trickle, like sniper attacks, and build to a torrent, leaving whole swathes of the office desolate, cubicle ghost towns. The survivors—huddled together at the coffee bar or strategizing in a colleague’s office—live in fear. They struggle to look busy before the ax falls. The rules have changed. Despite all the blather about quitting to become a rafting instructor, no one wants to pack up while others look on with the same thought: “thank god it wasn’t me.”

Our chorus of idiosyncratic protagonists all belong to the same advertising team. The story, such as it is (I challenge you to find an arc), evolves from swapped anecdotes as they band together in the collective struggle of their days. Mr. Ferris’ observations are often ticklish, making the book feel like the one we have rattling in our heads. But the slippery monotony of the tone—coasting along on “we saw” and “we heard”—deprives it of any sort of narrative build, or investment in the characters. “Some of us knew how to turn a misshapen paper clip into a projectile that could hit the ceiling,” he writes. “If our attention was drawn to the ceiling, we usually recounted our tiles.” I snickered with familiarity, but I also felt a little bored.

Still, Mr. Ferris does breezily capture some larger truths about professional wage-slavery. “We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly.” Sartre’s play No Exit comes to mind: Hell isn’t fire and brimstone; it’s close quarters with other people. Or maybe it’s just a job we desperately need and thoroughly despise.

Emily Bobrow is an editor at Economist.com.