I found reading Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris to be a strange experience while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This story is about a group of employees who work together in a large office but for the past six months I’ve been working from home, carrying out my work via emails, phone calls and on-line meetings. I’ve had very few site visits and when I have, I’ve needed a permit to travel, but due to the nature of the industry I work in my working life has been busier than before the pandemic.
The majority of Then We Came to the End is narrated by an unnamed worker in an advertising agency, whose business is located in a large building in a city. He or she tells the story from the point of view of the workers in the plural, saying “Our information had come from reliable sources” or “We returned to our computer screens” after gathering informally in an office or hallway to gossip about whoever wasn’t presently with the group.
Some of the characters were named and their personal affairs discussed, such as Larry and Amber who were having an affair even though he was married, or about Benny’s strange legacy from another colleague who had recently died. Marcia’s new haircut was noticed and commented on favourably, while nobody knew what to do about Carl’s worsening depression. Everyone thought Tom was mentally deranged and after he was laid off, worried that he might return to the office with a gun to shoot them all.
The business was losing money and one by one many of the workers were let go. Lynn was a partner in the business and the rest of the workers, except for Joe Pope, her second-in-command, were alternately in awe of her, terrified by her or devoted to her. Much of the office gossip revolved around whether or not Lynn had breast cancer, particularly after they were given an assignment with the topic, What is Funny About Breast Cancer. The characters couldn’t think of anything, either.
A section in the middle of the book moved away from the ‘we’ narrator to directly follow Lynn. In this section it became clear that although Lynn cared for her staff and knew them as intimately as they knew each other, she also hated their group mentality and relentless gossiping.
I struggled a little with Then We Came to the End because it hit every single point about what is good and bad about working in a corporate office. The story is clever and witty but despite having been absent from my office for six months, I still connected too much with the petty irritations the characters experienced, to the point where I felt as if their workplace dramas were intruding too far into my personal life.
A joke I recently heard is that this is the year that instead of working from home, we’re living at work. Those of us lucky enough to still have jobs, that is.