I knew after reading the first paragraph that Joshua Ferris had nailed it. He utterly nails the boredom, the cynicism, and the resignation that is work in the corporate cubicle culture. What The Office brought to television, what Office Space brought to the movies, and what Dilbert brought to comics, Then We Came to the End brings to literature.
"We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen... We thought that moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day."
Ferris's novel is like an episode of Seinfeld - an episode in which Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer all work for a big Chicago ad agency. Nothing much happens. It's hilarious. Ferris imbues his characters with the foibles and frailties of everyday people, not unlike the people you're working with right now; he doesn't lampoon them.
We cringe as Tom Mota becomes somewhat unhinged early in the novel, wearing a corporate polo shirt for thirty straight days before being offered two more polos from his well-meaning coworkers and donning those in layers above the first; we wonder at Chris Yopp who, after being layed-off, returns surreptitiously to work two more days, clinging desperately and in vain to a job he's already lost; our jaws drop to see Janine Gorjanc sitting in a pool of plastic balls at the McDonald's PlayPlace, still mourning the loss of her daughter; and we marvel at Benny Shassburger's attachment to a large Native American totem pole left to him by a fellow employee.
It is as though Ferris creates these viably flawed characters, with all their hopes, fears, and insecurities, and then simply sets them down, releases them within the simulated cube farm of his novel - SimOffice if you will - and they just do the rest. Their interactions alternately elicit laughter and empathy in the reader, and much of this comes from the fact that we know these people. We've worked with them ourselves. In fact, we are these people.
Ferris knocks this point home with his first-person plural narrator. The use of "we" throughout the novel is awkward in places, but any detraction is far outweighed by how well it achieves the desired effect. In the midst of layoffs brought on by the dot com downturn, we find ourselves alongside these characters, moving from cubicle to cubicle to tell stories and gossip, fearing the loss of these jobs we're not even sure we wanted to begin with.
Ultimately, Then We Came to the End is about life. We are bored with our work, we are disaffected - it's true. Our lives are far bigger than these deadlines and the need to submit our TPS reports on time. Our loved ones, our unwritten novels, the totem poles we all keep in a sacred place away from these beige cubicle walls - these are our reasons for living and the reasons why our time at the office seems like too much of an imposition to ask.
Ultimately, we are like our coworkers in Then We Came to the End - we need to work, and we value this opportunity most in the face of losing it. Joshua Ferris taps into this, and he makes sure we remember having worked here.