Walk Spanish

Christopher Tayler

  • Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
    Viking, 387 pp, £14.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 670 91655 9

‘We had mixed feelings,’ the voice that narrates Then We Came to the End reports from time to time – needlessly, really, since mixed feelings, and the absurdity and awkwardness of reporting them in the first person plural, are one of the main sources of comedy in Joshua Ferris’s novel. ‘Everyone loved Benny,’ the voice says, ‘which was why some of us hated his guts.’ Then there’s Karen Woo: ‘Did we dislike her because we were racists, because we were misogynists, because her “initiative” rankled and her ambition was so bald,’ or ‘because she was who she was and we were forced by fate to be around her all the time? Our diversity pretty much guaranteed it was a combination of all of the above.’ Garrulous and reticent, male and female, victims and perpetrators of workplace pranks, Ferris’s office workers also set grammar problems for themselves when they act as well as speak in unison. On slow days, ‘we drummed the eraser between our teeth. If a stray paper clip happened to be lying around we were likely to bend it out of shape.’ One paper clip? One eraser? In their line of work, which is advertising, ‘words and meaning were almost always at odds . . . We knew it, you knew it, they knew it, we all knew it.’

‘Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year’ is the memorable opening line of Don DeLillo’s Americana (1971). Ferris’s conceit is to take a ‘we’ of that sort – a ‘we’ you’d usually expect to become an ‘I’ before long – and keep it up for nearly 400 pages. ‘We’, in his novel, are the art directors and copywriters who once worked under Lynn Mason’s direction at a medium-sized agency housed in a Chicago skyscraper. From the near-present, ‘we’ fondly recall the tail-end of the internet boom, at the height of which ‘our’ prosperity seemed unassailable. But most of the novel’s action, such as it is, takes place in the spring of 2001, by which time cash has begun to flow less freely. New commissions are thin on the ground and people are being laid off. Soon – though Ferris handles this lightly – working in skyscrapers will seem less attractive. The creatives on Lynn’s team fret constantly about who will be next to walk the plank, or, as they put it after getting creative, ‘walk Spanish’. Unused to projecting earnest industriousness, they make free with the colour printers and on-the-house snacks. Most of all, they sit around and gossip.

Their gossiping lets Ferris cut from staccato recollections in the first person plural to something closely resembling conventional third-person narrative. And the awkward manoeuvres this entails become part of the joke as well. Someone – it might be Benny Shassburger, a talkative art director, a Tim-from-The-Office-like nice guy – will start telling a story. The narrating voice paraphrases, occasionally reminding the reader of who’s in charge by giving sources for people’s thoughts in the style of a meticulous journalist. Benny tells a story about the departure of Tom Mota, a thoughtful, disgruntled, hot-tempered character who was one of the first to walk Spanish when the current round of layoffs began. ‘“Hand me those scissors,” said Tom. Benny said he looked behind him and saw a pair of scissors on Tom’s bookshelf. Benny told us he didn’t want to hand scissors to Tom.’ And ‘we’ interrupt people’s stories: ‘We could hardly look at him. “What?” he said. We told him he had something – “Where?” It was on his lip . . . Finally he thumbed it off and looked at it. “Cream cheese,” he said. There were bagels? “In the kitchen”.’ Someone is always likely to break up the discussion by suggesting that it’s time to do some work: a role that’s usually filled by Jim Jackers, office jackass, or Joe Pope, Lynn’s inscrutable deputy.

Out of this mass of talk, Ferris quarries a series of running gags and shaggy-dog stories in which ‘we’ become particularised figures as well as types of the American office worker. A huge body of lore attaches to Tom Mota, who subscribes to Guns and Ammo and is given to quoting Emerson (‘for all our soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted that all men have sublime thoughts’). Quite a lot of it relates to his desirable chair, which was filched when he left, it’s assumed, by Chris Yop, a jittery old-timer who’s unreasonably alarmed when the office manager starts making inquiries, revealing that she keeps track of the furniture using serial numbers. This causes the real culprit, Marcia Dwyer, who changes her own oil and listens to Mötley Crüe, to set an elaborate relay-race of chair substitutions in motion. Meanwhile, Benny, who has a crush on Marcia, amuses himself with such time-wasting schemes as trying to spend a day speaking only in quotes from The Godfather. Amber Ludwig is pregnant by Larry Novotny, who’s married. Jim Jackers sends irritatingly needy emails: ‘Can you please tell me – is it me, Marcia? Am I the irritating person you’re talking about?’

Ferris is impressively adroit at keeping all this stuff in the air. He’s also very careful about tone, making it clear that it’s not all fun and games while trying not to let the comedy become too desperately black or too sappily wry. Being creatives, ‘we’ naturally include a number of would-be writers, among them Don Blattner, author of non-saleable screenplays, and Hank Neary, who’s working on a ‘small, angry book about work’. Ferris wants it to be known that his is not that book, but his non-angriness doesn’t mean that ‘we’ don’t behave thoughtlessly when it’s discovered that Janine Gorjanc spends her lunchbreaks grieving for her murdered daughter beside the ball pond at the back of the local McDonald’s. And what, in the end, can ‘we’ say about Frank Brizzolera, a stalwart smoker who dies of cancer, leaving few collective memories behind? ‘He ate two baloney sandwiches for lunch almost every day.’

Lynn Mason, the unapproachable boss, might be dying too. ‘Dying? It was uncertain.’ There are rumours of illness, and the team’s latest client – a charity wanting an ad that will make breast cancer sufferers laugh – can’t be found in the phonebook. Along with general worries that Tom Mota might be planning to use his ex-colleagues for target practice, the question-mark over whether or not Lynn has an upcoming appointment at the hospital provides enough scaffolding, more or less, to build the novel up to a tragicomic climax. Lynn – like her deputy and, latterly, Tom – also stands out as someone who’s not one of ‘us’, and as her storyline moves closer to centre-stage, there’s a swelling discussion about what it means to be a ‘we’, to be susceptible to groupthink and group dynamics. Joe Pope, the aloof-seeming company man, is revealed to be a more principled and successful individualist than Tom, the Transcendentalist-quoting office nutter. ‘We’ are gently humbled, and not only by the knowledge that, ‘despite all our certainties, it was very difficult to guess what one individual was thinking at any given moment.’ ‘Our’ ad-man’s fantasies of manipulating ‘the low sleepwalking hordes’ run up against a problem: ‘What were we but sheep like them? We were them. We were all we.’

Throughout all this, Ferris rings the changes on other thematic possibilities opened up by his eye-catching stunt-narration. One of these is a teasing way with the complicity it creates in the reader. When Chris Yop starts saying ‘buckshelves’ instead of ‘bookshelves’ while obsessing about the furniture regime, you wonder if it’s a misprint; a few lines later, ‘we’ pick him up on it too. After a while, you start to feel guilty about smirking at the sabotaging of someone’s office by means of a concealed sushi roll when it’s brought home to ‘us’ that the victim was upset. Rhetorical ploys of this sort are also appropriate in the context of the advertising business: such phrases as ‘And that’s not just us talking’ give the narrating voice a distinctly salesmanlike ring. Yet there are frequent reminders that this voice is artificially and rather creepily unanimous – the voice of an institutional consciousness that flickers into being in strip-lit corridors and meeting rooms, takes gossip for fact, and has limited comprehension of private experience. Individuals might not be up to speed on the latest developments, might leave the group or even die. ‘We knew everything,’ the voice says again and again. ‘We would never die.’

About halfway through the book, there’s an unexpected section told from Lynn’s point of view in free indirect style. And though this eventually turns out to fit in with the game (it was written, you learn later, by one of the characters), the rest of the novel drops the more strenuous rules governing access to people’s thoughts. It’s probably a sensible move: tacking on an ‘X told us’ whenever someone shows signs of having an inner life would be annoying in the long run. But the characters seem more lifelike when they’re emerging trait by trait from the weave of explanation and anecdote than they do when Ferris has established them more firmly. Once it’s understood that, say, Genevieve Latko-Devine, the office beauty, sometimes tucks stray hairs behind her ears, she starts doing it all the time, as if to signal who she is. There’s also a slight feeling that, having decided against producing a ‘small, angry book about work’, Ferris is still using such a book as a template as he assigns expectation-reversingly sunny fates to the majority of his assorted microserfs, slab rats, cubicle-dwellers and slackers – who, by the way, actually work pretty hard, have mortgages and children to worry about and so on. The horrors of advertising, a very well-worn topic, are treated with irony rather than terror and repulsion.

That’s not to say that Ferris closes this funny, snappily written first novel on what his characters would call a ‘Blattnerian’ note. It’s more that his book is tinged with nostalgia: in part, a deskbound writer’s nostalgia for having an office to go to, colleagues to chat with, opportunities to drink coffee all afternoon while messing around on the internet and still get paid. For people born like Ferris in the mid-1970s, the internet boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a golden age for that kind of day job. ‘There was so much money involved,’ he writes in one of the novel’s bulletins on the state of the nation, ‘and some of it even trickled down to us, a small amount that allowed us to live among the top 1 per cent of the wealthiest in the world.’ Maybe, the characters speculate, they’re ‘stuck in the dark ages of luxury and comfort. How could we be expected to break out of it, we who were overpaid?’ ‘We were just about to awaken from a decade of unadulterated dreaming,’ they say of the last days of spring 2001. When it’s finally time to revise the sentence that suggested the novel’s title, however, their tone is more wistful: ‘Then we came to the end of another bright and tranquil summer.’