Most of Then We Came to the End takes place inside an ad agency’s office building, especially one particular floor where the copywriters and artists work. (There is an extensive, fictional floor plan of the office space at It is the 1990s, when money flowed during the economic upturn brought about by the dot-com revolution. Business was booming. People felt relaxed and secure in their jobs and their futures. However, a few chapters into the novel, the economy is definitely making a turn—a turn toward collapse. The agency is in a bind because jobs are not coming in. The dot-com market was a bubble, and it has burst.

Not all scenes are set inside the office. Some follow the characters to lunch at nondescript restaurants and diners in the downtown Loop section of Chicago. The only home the story visits, though, is Lynn’s, during the few chapters devoted to her life outside the office.

The focus on the office setting underscores the limited knowledge that characters have of each other. Although they spend eight-plus hours a day together, they know very little about their colleagues’ private lives, just as readers know very little of the characters besides what they do at work. The division of the working space into small offices and cubicles also highlights the characters’ isolation from one another, typical of the corporate world.

Ideas for Group Discussions

1. Discuss the use of a first-person-plural (“we”) narrator. Does this type of narrator make you feel closer to the characters and their story or further removed? What purpose does this type of narrator play? Why do you think the author chose this form? And why do you suppose his last lines in the story read, “We were the only two left. Just the two of us, you and me”?

2. Although most of this story is about pranks and gossip that the coworkers play on one another, there are several incidents in which true emotions are expressed. What are some of the events that touched you as a reader? How did they affect you? Why?

3. Before one of the workers dies, he leaves Benny a totem pole. Why do you think he did this? Why do you think Benny spent so much time looking at the totem pole? What do you think Benny was thinking and feeling at the time?

4. Why do you think Janine spent her lunch hours at the McDonald’s playground? What was driving her coworkers to go and stare at her? What does this scene say about the characters? What theme do you think this scene exemplifies?

5. Not only are the relationships of the workers exposed, but so too are some of the marriages of the characters. Overall, what is this story saying about marriage? Weigh the good marriages with those that are not going so well or have already broken up. Is there any couple that is doing well?

6. The mystery of the pro bono ad campaign for breast cancer is never solved. Do you think it was a real campaign? If you think Lynn was behind it, why do you think she did it?

7. Evaluate the characters Benny and Marcia. What do you think they saw in each other? How do you think they will do as a married couple? What do you think Benny meant when he compared his upcoming wedding to something out of Romeo and Juliet?

Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. In Ferris’ novel, the character Tom Mota tries to seek revenge on his fellow coworkers after he is fired. Mota carries a gun with him to threaten his office mates. Before he appears, however, the other characters predict Tom will come back and threaten them because of similar incidents reported in the news about other fired employees. Do a study of the past decade or two of similar incidents of fired employees returning and threatening (and sometimes killing) their fellow employees. How many of these incidents can you find? What were the circumstances and the casualties? Has the number of incidents been increasing or decreasing? Find statements by psychologists that explain this type of behavior and report your findings to your class.

2. Interview ten adults who work in a corporate setting. Write up a list of questions prior to the interview to keep you focused on some of the issues discussed in Ferris’ novel. Some questions you ask might include the following: (1) Are you satisfied with your job? (2) How secure does your job make you feel? (3) Do you or your fellow employees pull pranks on one another? (4) How much time do you spend socializing on the job? (5) Are you aware of any office romances? (6) How much time do you waste in an average day at work? (7) How many meetings do you attend in one week? (8) If you could have any job you wanted, what would your dream job be? (9) Why don’t you pursue your dream job? Ask at least twenty questions, then provide your class with a summary of your findings and some of the more interesting answers you received.

3. Write a short story using the pronoun “we” for the narrator. Then write the same story with the pronoun “I.” Next write the story with a third-person narrator (“he” or “she”). How did each different point of view change your story? Turn in your short stories to your teacher as well as your analysis of the three different points of view.

4. From the clues provided about Lynn Mason’s cancer, research this disease so you can explain to your class why Lynn died. How does this particular cancer progress? What were Lynn’s chances of survival? Would the cancer have been less threatening if she had gone to the doctor earlier? Also provide a statistical report on this type of cancer. How many women died of this disease in 1990? In 2000? In 2007? What has the medical community discovered about this type of cancer over the years? Present your findings to your class.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

Making the top-ten lists of Time, Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, and several other publications in 2007, Ferris’ novel became a runaway bestseller and critical favorite. One reason for this, according to Seattle Times reviewer Michael Upchurch (April 1, 2007), is that Ferris knows how to bring his characters to life with well-executed strokes or, as Upchurch put it, “a few artful phrases.”

Eric Weinberger, writing for the Spectator (March 31, 2007), praised Ferris’ first novel for the narrator’s use of the pronoun “we” and the effect that this produces as it mimics corporate culture. Weinberger also wrote that the story makes “continued pronouncements or judgments that skip straight from the mundane to the profound, encompassing us all.”

In a piece for the New York Times Book Review (March 18, 2007), James Poniewozik wrote that Ferris’ characters, after being laid off, actually begin to miss the badgering, the pranks, and the gossip—that is to say, the awkward sense of friendship that unites them. Readers are able to empathize as they come to “the end of this perceptive and darkly entertaining novel.”

Related Titles / Adaptations

Ferris gives credit for the title of his novel to a line in Don DeLillo’s Americana (1989). Many critics have pointed out the similarities between the two books, stating that Ferris’ is a bit lighter, but the themes of isolation and a search for meaning in life are the same.

Max Barry tends to write about the corporate world, and in his third novel, Company (2006), he adds a lot of humor. The writing has been called amusing as well as wry, as Barry demonstrates how corporate America is turning people into cogs.

Deep in the jungles of Vietnam, characters created by author Denis Johnson are turned into uncaring, numb souls to an even greater extent than those trapped in corporate America. Johnson’s war novel Tree of Smoke (2007) beat out Ferris’ work to win the 2007 National Book Award. Johnson created a far harsher world without any comic relief.

For Further Reference

Cooper, Darcy. 2007. Office politics cubed. Los Angeles Times, March 11, p. R 10. Cooper cautiously suspects that Ferris’ book might eventually be called the “Great American Novel.”

Dumenco, Simon. 2007. Overthink this: Your world just came out in hardcover. Advertising Age 78 (10): 30. Dumenco highly recommended this novel, calling Ferris’ work a “hilarious, vivid, and oddly touching story.”

Othmer, James P. 2007. As seen in the advertising world. Washington Post, May 28, p. C 5. In his review of Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, Othmer referred to the novel as “funny and impressively observed.”

Poniewozik, James. 2007. Pink slip blues. New York Times Book Review, March 18, p. 1. Poniewozik was pleasantly surprised by Ferris’ first novel. At first he was worried that it would be yet another angry book about the workplace, but Poniewozik instead found it “expansive, great-hearted and acidly funny.”