Punching out

When layoffs are in the air, officemates get a little primeval in Joshua Ferris' debut novel.

Published May 6, 2007

Imagine Lord of the Flies played for laughs and set in an office, and you'll come close to Joshua Ferris' first novel, Then We Came to the End. It showcases chaos and fear in a Chicago advertising agency at the end of the dot-com bubble.

As the layoffs begin, the officemates start to freak out and question everything. Is Chris Yop being let go because he took Tom Mota's chair? How long will Carl Garbedian get away with pilfering antidepressants from Janine Gorjanc? Does their hypercompetent but distant boss, Lynn Mason, actually have cancer?

Ferris uses a collective "we" first-person voice through most of the novel. At first it looks hard to sustain, with sentences like "We shuffled up the stairs toward the revolving doors slowly, afraid of what awaited us inside." But as layoffs continue, it captures the diminishment and dread of those left behind. He taps into the tension between the universal longing to be part of the crowd and the disgust of the individual at the group's smug stupidity.

Thanks to strong reviews and good buzz, Ferris, 32, has been traveling a good bit lately. He spoke with the St. Petersburg Times from his Brooklyn home between publicity trips to London and Los Angeles.

With the success of your novel, you'll probably never work an office job again. Is that a good thing?

I love writing, and I love working at writing fiction, so it's a good thing from that point of view. But, as I hope the book conveys, there's a lot of virtue to be found in the community that is created - artificially, maybe, but nonetheless there - at the office. I miss that community.

You grew up mostly in the Midwest, but lived in Key West from ages 10 to 14. Did Key West influence you?

Oh, definitely. In Key West, I was introduced to hugely different types of people from what I had known. I worked at a restaurant in the 1980s, where I met homosexuals dying of AIDS, itinerants who were just floating around, immigrants, single moms, heroin addicts. I met wildly different people, and that exposure was rich and interesting, and it coincided with my love of writing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is like another character in your book; the office rebel, Tom Mota, is constantly quoting him. Are you a longtime Emerson fan?

I'm a huge fan. He speaks to the primal need to figure out what an individual is and how to realize that in the face of great odds. Tom misreads him a little. Tom takes him and uses him as the Bible for his own antics. He spends so much time rebelling that he falls quickly into a type of person, and that type is not an individual. And he realizes, at the end of the book, that he has rebelled himself into conformity. He loves Emerson and quotes Emerson, but he really fails to hear Emerson's call.

Tom is a real contrast to Lynn Mason, the head of the firm, who comes to work even when she's at her lowest.

Hopefully the book captures the way we feel about work: Tom more or less hates it, while Lynn embraces it and finds success in it. In between, you have all these other characters who fall along a spectrum. The book's main goal is to capture an ensemble cast of very complex relationships with work.

Office workers often think of themselves as safe from physical harm because their jobs are not physical. Yet death seems to be a constant theme in your book.

All of the characters are looking at the death of their jobs, and that sort of becomes a metaphor for looking at the death of the individual. As a collective, they depend on corporate health, but that too is being endangered. In contrast to that, there are the comedic shenanigans that come in to displace all the dismal thoughts about the future. There's a definite dynamic there, and it was very deliberately intended. I suspect people think of death much more often than we articulate. It's not morbid; it's a bald fact of life that can't be avoided. And when you're at work, you think about it, because you think about your future at work. . . . In many respects, death is the subtext of if you're happy, if you're successful, if you want a change, all of that stuff.

Angie Drobnic Holan is a Times researcher.