Joshua Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came to the End (2007), is a quirky story about quirky people who work as “creatives” at an advertising agency. Most of the characters are bored with their jobs or incredibly stressed. To relieve both the boredom and the tension, they start rumors, mull over gossip, and talk about the absurdities of office politics.
The story, however, is not all good times, jokes, and camaraderie. Sometimes it is quite the opposite. Coworkers die; some go a bit off the deep end; and perhaps worst of all, one after another all the copywriters and artists are laid off because the ad agency is hurting financially. Throughout the novel, there is always one ominous question lurking in the background: who’s going to be next?
To avoid facing that question, the characters pull pranks (such as hiding food behind a coworker’s bookshelf and then waiting for it to stink up the office), steal workplace decorations, and argue over chairs. They even fall in love, or at least have affairs. One man goes berserk, sneaks back into the building after being laid off, and, dressed up as a clown, assaults those who have offended him, shooting paintball pellets filled with fake blood.
The story culminates with the discovery that Lynn, one of the company’s partners, a cool-headed woman the other characters are afraid of, is dying of cancer. The narrator lingers over Lynn’s story, exposing the fear she suffers in her personal life, which differs so much from the persona she has mastered at work. This is the beginning of the end—of her life, of the group’s shared experiences, and of the novel. Masks are taken off, and everyone begins to realize how little they really knew of each other and—worst of all—how little they really knew of themselves.