Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cubicleist art: The place of Joshua Ferris's "And Then We Came to the End" in early 21st Century White-Collar Narratives

Pieces of Flair

Prior to Mike Judge's Office Space in 1999, the only movies I can recall that took the office as a setting worthy of a full-length feature were gender-oriented fare like Nine to Five, Mr. Mom, or Working Girl. By 1999, perhaps, the office was no longer terrain to be colonized by women wanting respect or to advance beyond the typing pool. Office Space wasn't about anyone trying to get into the office; it was entirely about how to escape from it. If there were any gender issues in play, they were these: the office is an emasculating environment. The best hope for men, if men ye would be, is to retreat to the honest manliness of blue-collar work.

It's an idealized version of blue-collar work, as anyone who's ever done blue collar work past the age of 30 can tell you, but the movie's influence within the culture it lampooned has been enormous. Nobody who works in any kind of large organization's office goes a month without quoting a line from it or hearing one quoted.

In line with the movie's only half-joking theme that all those aligned with the soul-sucking organization are evil, all of the bosses in Office Space are contemptible people, too. Lundberg is a personification of an otherwise faceless enemy: calculating, uncaring, putting profit above all then enforcing rules that don't even seem to have have a profit motive, only a motive of sucking life out of everyone who works there.

 Enter Steve Carrell

Office Space remained the final word on office life until NBC premiered The Office starting in early 2005. In the beginning, the manager Michael and his loyal subject Dwight are nearly as caricatured as Judge's Lundberg. But the success of the show permitted it to stick around long enough to allow Michael and Dwight to achieve more nuanced characterizations. Michael, we learn, was just a guy who liked being a salesman (and was really good at it), but was forced into management. He doesn't like it, and he's not good at it. But believe it or not, he might be the best choice for it, only because not many people want to be in charge and those that do are often so ambitious, even upper management is wise enough not to trust them. The few characters who seldom, if ever, rise above stereotype are actually in the peanut gallery. Kevin is usually just a fat/bald joke. Kelly Kapoor is almost always just a neurotic, narcissistic mess (and she probably wrote herself that way).

The show will probably always be best remembered for the way it skewered office political correctness by having Michael Scott cluelessly fail to conform. It was uncomfortable to watch at least once an episode, either because Michael was offending some group or because his own life was unraveling in ways he refused to see. It mostly saw office life as painful and pointless, but it did offer some small redemption for some. Jim, who is the most anti-establishment character in the show, always sabotaging Dwight in some way, ends up moving up the corporate ladder. He does so because he's a family man and he needs the gig, but also because he does find something in Dunder Mifflin he cares about.

And then we come to And then We Came to the End

I wonder if Joshua Ferris was freaking out at all while working on his debut novel, And Then We Came to the End. He must have been working on it for some time. Clues from the novel, in which a character named Hank promises for years to write a "short, angry" book about working in advertising, suggest Ferris had been thinking of the novel for a long time, possibly back into the 90s. The book was published on March 1, 2007, meaning he must have finished writing it at least a year ahead of that. This means it's possible he was working on it or finished with it and trying to find a publisher when NBC trotted out The Office. He might have worried that his novel would seem derivative.

Like the NBC show, it's based on a large ensemble of characters, fleshed out to varying levels of specificity. To some extent, though, the vast majority of characters are never quite fully made into individuals at all, a result of the novel's most salient characteristic: the first-person plural narrator.

This narrative device ran the risk of feeling gimmicky, but I'd agree with this review and the majority of reviewers who felt it worked well:

About that “we”: Ferris writes the novel in the first-person plural — the snarky, gossipy, anxious employees of the agency compose the collective narrator. This exotic trick play of a device often made the narrative of Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Virgin Suicides” feel anesthetized and distanced. But the collective voice is fitting for corporate employees, trained to work in teams, their groupthink honed in a million meetings, and the effect is chilling when the layoffs begin and the collective narrator is literally diminished.

In fact, it's an essential device to developing one of the key themes, which is also the big innovation Ferris brings to the 21st Century office dramedy. Because Ferris is after much bigger game than just skewering corporate culture. As Geoffery Wolff put it, the thematic heart of the novel is answering one of the oldest questions in art: "what part of a human being might outstay his visit on Earth?"

Ferris's answer is counter-intuitive to the wisdom of other office-parodying fiction. Immortality doesn't come, as most people assert, from treating work as an evil to be endured with ill will in order to take care of more important priorities outside of work, like family and personal interests. It comes from doing work well, from admitting the central position it holds in our lives and committing to it with a whole heart.

The two who stand apart

The two most sympathetic characters in the novel are the boss and the assistant. Lynn Mason and Joe Pope are nothing like Michael and Dwight. Lynn is respected, feared, occasionally somewhat liked, but definitely not one of the "we" of the collective conscience of the narrator. Halfway through the book, there is a crucial breakaway from the main narrative--the only part until the very end that takes place outside the office. Lynn, who is battling breast cancer but keeping her struggle to herself (although everyone in the office knows), gets a large chapter all to herself. There is no "we." There is just Lynn.

Lynn is struggling to figure out the most appropriate way to spend her last evening before going in for exploratory surgery, when her whole life will change. She tries one wrong idea after another (reminiscent of Ferris's incredible short story "The Breeze" from The New Yorker in 2013). Unlike the characters in that story though, who never do get it right and end up settling for going to the movies, Lynn does eventually find the right thing to do. She goes to the office to get her company ready for two big pitches coming up. It doesn't matter if we think it's right; it feels right to Lynn, which is why she gets to stand apart in her own narrative.

Joe Pope makes a virtue of his apartness from the group. He denies that be thinks he is really better than anyone in any way, although his stoicism in the face of somebody writing "FAG" in large print on his office would suggest he was better. He explains his real virtue, instead, almost in terms that make it sound like a vice: "That's what I'm guilty of, Genevieve. Believing I'm better than the group. There is no word for me. Someone better, smarter, more humane than any group." Indeed, Joe's apartness from the group is what gives him the moral clarity to shame the office for the way it is gawking at Janine Gorjanc as she grieves the shocking, violent death of her child.

Tom is a co-worker, part of the Greek chorus of voices in the collective "we" until he becomes one of the first to be cut during the economic downturn. He quotes Emerson and seems to have a noble soul in spite of his hot temper. He is the one, it turns out, who wrote "FAG" on Joe's office. If there were to be a character in the novel who stood against the cold soul of capitalism, it would be Tom. But Tom ultimately (after a comic episode where the shooting spree he goes on that we knew was coming turns out to be just a paint ball gun) recognizes Joe's superiority:
"I thought I was the one living right...I was the one saying fuck you to the miseries of office life. Nobody could resist conforming in the corporate setting, but I managed it. Making it a point every day to show how different I was from everybody else. Then I saw you sitting side by side with the word FAG on the wall--working--at peace--and I knew--you were the one."

  "Advertising isn't your doesn't make you happy"

The group voice of working stiffs in Ferris's novel sense that Lynn and Joe are better because they find fulfillment in exactly what they spend most of their time doing. The worker drones are constantly conflicted by the realization that they both do and do not care about their work: "We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly." Or, "a good deal of our self-esteem was predicated on the belief that we were good marketers."

Ferris's major revelation that sets him apart from other contemporary office fiction is that he does not see people who love their work as pathetic. He sees anyone who is doing something they do not love as more pathetic. This does not mean that we all have to love the jobs we are forced to work sometimes. It does mean that we ought to keep asking ourselves what, if not the work we are in, would truly make us happy, would make use feel that if we were to die, we'd hope it would be while at our work (as the writer Hank says to the groans of his co-workers).

Hank set out to write a book that attacked corporate America, but he ended up with a gentler, wiser story:
"I based a character on Lynn, and I made that character into a tyrant. I did it on principle, because anyone who was a boss in that book had to be a tyrant. Anyone who believed in the merits of capitalism, and soul-destroying corporations, and work work work--all that--naturally that person wasn't deserving of any sympathy. But when I decided to retire that book, thank god, and write something different, I knew she was sick, so I went to see her..And it turned out she was very open to talking with me, not only about her sickness, but also her personal life, a lot of other things."
None of this is to say that captains of industry are better people than the rest of us, but it does suggest that the boss isn't simply an object of derision, as in Office Space and a good part of The Office.

We working class cubicle-dwellers, meanwhile, can also find nobility, perhaps even a touch of immortality, if our suffering through the office life we don't like serves a purpose for which we do care very much. This is why the office mates need to know that Hank is writing his novel, that Don Blattner is working on his screenplay.

Neither Joe Pope nor Lynn have a family. There is a price they pay for their single-mindedness. Emerson's friend Thoreau never had a family either when he was hanging out in the woods, being independent. There is more than one kind of reality we can admire. And Then we Came to the End's epiphany is, as a New York Times review put it, "a ridiculous sentiment, counter to every carpe diem truism — who ever died wishing they had worked more hours? It is also perfectly understandable and beautifully expressed." 

Brief aside about the humor

Nearly every reviewer of the book found it very funny, but this is an area where I feel Ferris was hurt by others beating him to the punch. I didn't find much of the book humorous. There is a recurring gag, for example, where all the employees are paranoid of Marcia the office manager's list of serial numbers on the chairs. So chairs keep getting shuffled around so that employees do not get fired for having taken over the chairs of laid-off co-workers. It's in there a lot, but it felt to me like a weak echo of funnier material. But this might have just been bad timing for Ferris. 

And now we come to the end of this post by briefly considering Mad Men

At least Ferris was lucky enough to beat the premiere of Mad Men by a few months. Although set in the late 50s and 60s, the show is a mirror on the present by way of showing us how we got where we are. It shares a dark sensibility with Ferris's novel, as well as a portrayal of the nobility of those at the top, however very flawed they may be. 

The overriding theme of Mad Men to me always seemed to have something to do with identity, namely the identity of America though Don Draper, who is a rascal and a liar, but so goddamned handsome and talented everyone loves him anyway, much like the world is exasperated by America but still can't get enough of what we are selling. Draper's semi-salvation at the end is to turn from the things he sells to define him and to look inward, suggesting that America, also, took something of an introspective turn as Vietnam was ending. 

Mad Men is set, like We Came to the End, in an advertising agency. Everyone in "creative," a word one of Ferris's characters says is "the dumbest thing he's ever heard" as it applies to advertising, is genuinely interested in figuring out the best way to sell crap. It's much more a matter of loving being given a problem and coming up with a way to solve it than it is a belief that what anyone does is really important. 

Office Space gave us a Kafkaesque corporation whose bosses were worthy only of disdain. The Office gave us bosses who were just lovable rubes like the rest of us, neither noble nor loathsome, just funny. Then We Came to the End and Mad Men have a more enduring, deeper burning sort of portrait of the captains of the engines of capitalism. They are, like the version of the world they are selling, both captivating and deplorable, compelling and revolting. They are the heads hanging heavy as they wear the crown. They are the missionaries of Western culture bringing both enlightenment and the sword. But whatever we ultimately feel about them, it is their names we remember when they are gone.




  1. You absolutely lost me by claiming that there was anything remotely interesting or humorous about the American version of the Office.

    Somehow I managed to tune in briefly when you commented on Mad Men, which I have not seen. So I only raise a historical question: does it really show us how we got here, or is it a conventionalized explanation that actually has nothing to do with the historical past, but rather with what we like to image was the past?

    I mean, we are rarely accurate when remember what life actually was like, even when we lived it. We have an image, but it's a construct and flawed. And then a kind of consensus emerges about different eras, and, so, we all know what we're supposed to think about that Mad Men era, when the reality might have been actually rather different. But acknowledging that might be a heresy because it implies a little more complexity about, say, gender, than we're allowed to believe.

    1. I was in Korea when I first started watching The Office. Mrs. Heretic and I hadn't seen any American television in a while, and someone had the first few seasons on DVD. It might have been our first experience in binge watching. In any event, after not seeing any television but Korean soap operas for a while, and having never seen the British version of the show, it seemed pretty good to me. I didn't stick with it for long when we came back to the States, though. Like a lot of people, we didn't think it stayed good for the last few seasons. But good or bad, the show is at least influential and is a cultural artifact I couldn't leave out of the discussion.

      I guarantee that if you watch Mad Men you will not find it simplistic. You may not like it, but it won't be because the show took a simple view of its time period. I didn't do it justice in my few paragraphs about it; I just didn't think I could leave it off when discussing fiction about the office from that time period.