They spend their days – and too many of their nights – at work. Away from friends and family, they share a stretch of stained carpet with a group of strangers they call colleagues.
This is a quirky book about an advertising agency that is going through a down turn. The company has recently taken a blow, and in the midst of all the firing people are playing Celebrity Death Watch, in which they bet who will be axed next or Walked the Spanish down the Hall. Chairs are stolen (Karen Woo) and while gossip flies through the walls, a possibly murderous worker (Tom Mato), disgruntle from getting axed, a grieving mother (Janine Ganovic) sitting in a pool of plastic balls in McDonald’s, a partner (Lynn Mason) who refuse to let anyone know she had cancer, another suffers depression (Carl Garbedian) and steals anti-depressants off Janine’s, Chris Yop is fired but kept walking back to the office to print bulk of CVs and sit in team meetings as if he is still employed.
One other interesting part of the novel was that it was written in first person plural. Everywhere it abounds with “we,” with the “we” being unclear as to who specifically it is talking about other than the rest of the office force. The writer has explained that he chose to use “we” because companies everywhere always use “we” to symbolize a community that the producers and consumers can relate to, and that part of the aim of the book was to pull back the corporate curtains and show exactly who “we” is referring to (The miserable lives of employees).
“’We had one thing still going for us: the prospect of a promotion. A new title: true, it came with no money, the power was almost always illusory, the bestowal a cheap shrewd device concocted by management to keep us from mutiny, but when word circulated that one of us had jumped up an acronym, that person was just a little quieter that day, took a longer lunch than usual, came back with shopping bags, spent the afternoon speaking softly into the telephone, and left whenever they wanted that night, while the rest of us sent e-mails flying back and forth on the lofty topics of Injustice and Uncertainty.’
Anyone who’s ever worked in a cubicle can relate to this quirky account of life in a contemporary advertising firm: the office romances, the ugly politics, the all-too-efficient grapevine, the juvenile pranks, the various neuroses, the complicated social dynamics, and the constant search for an excuse to slack off, but with the plot elements that white-collar employees everywhere can identify with.
“….But enough day dreaming. Our desks were waiting, we had work to do. And work was everything. We liked to think it was family, it was God, it was following football on Sundays, it was shopping with the girls or a strong drink on Saturday night, that it was love, that it was sex, that it was keeping our eye on retirement. But at two in the afternoon with bills to pay and layoffs hovering over us, it was all about work.”
The office contains a wealth of good materials for humour. But the narrative here is primarily character-driven. It jumps from one character’s experience to the next, from a totem pole bequeathed to Benny, to Tom’s mother’s death to Jim consulting his uncle Max for ad ideas, to Genevieve’s Cold Sore Guy (a sensitive ad about cold sore cream that do not promise a cure and do not offend people who had cold sore), but there wasn’t really a plot as much as description of day-to-day in the particular office. The absence of any coherent plot does not do this novel any favours. The characters are all familiar to anyone who’s live in Cube City, but they’re more caricatures than characters and quickly grow tiresome. Though there are good bits of storytelling throughout the novel, the lack of a coherent structure leaves it feeling messy. I really wanted to like this novel much more than I did. I had such high expectation of it.
“Some days felt longer than other days. Some days felt like two whole days. Unfortunately those days were never weekend days. Our Saturdays and Sundays passed in half the time of a normal workday. In other words, some weeks it felt like we worked ten straight days and had only one day off. We could hardly complain. Time was being added to our lives. But then it wasn’t easy to rejoice, exactly, realizing that time just wasn’t moving fast enough … We found ourselves wanting to hurry time along, which was not in the long run good for our health. Everybody was trapped in this contradiction but nobody ever dared to articulate it. They just said, ‘Can you believe it’s only three-fifteen?'”
It didn’t hold my attention for the full 384 pages. I took too long to finish the book. I started the book with a 2.5, I finished it with a revised 3. I like the part where Lynn is faced with her final hours of Mastectomy, encumbered with her troubled relationship, and the tension built when an ex-employee came to the building dressed in a clown outfit with a gun, and also the last chapter wrap-up of where everyone is 5 years down the road. The second part of the book is what made me changed my mind.
The back cover says: “Then We came to the End is about sitting all morning next to someone you cross the road to avoid at lunch. It’s the story of your life, and mine.” Not many writers have written about office life. If I were to publish I would imagine myself writing a book about corporate life. This book is a farcical take on corporate culture, work-life, and layoffs, with a serious undertone. Time well spent to read the book? Perhaps. Entertained? Yeah I like some part of the book, a little here and there. If I need to be entertained with corporate satire, I best go back to my Dilbert’s cartoon collections (and books!)
What I like most about the book: quirky, wise, American humour, office jokes that readers may relate with; and the second part of the book.
What I like least about the book: incoherent, putdownable. Many times I felt like giving up and go read another book that is far more enticing.