Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End1 is a satire about the hive mentality of the workplace. Set in a US ad agency at the end of the dot com boom, a group of employees tell the story in a reconceived 19th century omniscience as a gossipy group consciousness. 2 Predominantly using the first person plural point of view with free indirect discourse, Ferris is able to move from one character to the next, using sackings as a plot line to delve into the theme of individuality versus corporatization. This theme is an extension of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea of postmodernist society being either a unified whole or split in two where the needs of people and functions of the system are in dissonance3. The individuality versus corporatization theme is continued with Ferris’ use of postmodern techniques such as exchanging Mohsin Hamid’s4 notion of second person narrative with first person plural to encompass simultaneously both audience and character. Other devices include intertextualisation, participation, semiotics, and Lyotard’s ‘language game’,5 all which create a fusion of workers with workplace with the workers becoming a personification of the workplace, losing their individuality, and thus termination at the workplace, ‘the end,’ is akin to death.
Lyotard’s “language game”6 which emerged in postmodernist communities to create a sense of oneness and participation is a device, along with the first person plural narrative to induct both reader and character into the corporate hive,
“At first we called it … getting laid off, being let go. Then we got creative…they’d all been shitcanned. Lately a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. “Walking Spanish down the hall.”7
This exclusive language of the hive is apparent throughout,
“A new client pitch was referred to as a fire alarm.”8
It is also detected in other subgroupings such as management, for example the ‘we’ is unable to understand Lynn Mason’s voice messages,
“We spent hours trying to decode these simple messages.”9
The nuance of language as a definer of social groups is illustrated in Yop’s mispronounciation of ‘bookshelves’. Yop calls them ‘buckshelves’. The emphasis on this allegory indicates that this member of the hive is starting to show individuality and hence does not belong. The hive corrects Yop,
“We told Yop he meant to say bookshelves.”10
The dialogue occurs just prior to finding out that Yop has been ‘given the axe’. Although corrected, Yop slips back into his former pronounciation of ‘buckshelves’. This linguistic focus foreshadows his exit from the community where he no longer belongs as hinted at by his individuality in his language.
Ferris’ narrative has the ‘we’ not only thinking alike “…by the time we thought about them again…”11 but also moving as one animal, a true personification of the company and both a metaphor and a metonymy for the organization. Ferris’ pacey language creates a languidness to mimic the onomatopoeic
‘shuffling’. The use of lengthier words ‘towards the revolving,’ and the use of assonance in ‘shuffled and up’ and ‘afraid and await’ all combine to create the feeling of slowness and fear for the reader.
“We shuffled up the stairs towards the revolving doors slowly, afraid of what awaited us inside.”12
This corporate animal, not only thinks and moves as one, Ferris also has it portraying the same eating and drinking habits,
“We wandered the hallways … in search of free candy. We refilled our coffee mugs on floors we didn’t belong to.“13
The narrator never reveals him or herself. He/she is embedded in the heart of this corporate colony. Using this narrative device conveys the concept of corporate culture being a hive mentality, according a sense of belonging, membership and strength, echoing organisations’ use of the ‘we’ form in corporate communications. This corporate culture is in direct contrast to the individual Tom Mota, highlighted by Ferris’ use of the intertextualisation.
“You ever read Ralph Waldo Emerson?” Tom asked Benny.’14
Emerson’s belief in championing individuality15 is seen in Tom Mota. The intertextualisation also offers a reference to the narrator. Emerson rejected the notion that God is separate from the world and this can be mirrored in a novel where the narrator can be omniscient and God-like. In Then We Came to the End,16 the narrator is so much part of the group hive he/she cannot be separated from this world and is not seen as an individual. This reiterates the idea of the first person plural narration being as one with the corporation and Tom Mota as championing individuality.
Ferris employs further postmodern techniques such as semiotics and literary devices to pose the question of the corporation being ‘our’ very lifeblood through an array of metaphors of death such as the electric chair:
“We’d watch the singled out … disappear behind Lynn Mason’s door, and a few minutes later we’d see the lights dim from the voltage drop and we’d hear the electricity sizzle and the smell of cooked flesh would waft out into the insulated spaces.”17
Ferris’ syntax is sparse in adjectives, yet the use of onomatopoeia ‘sizzle’ and the metaphor of ‘cooked flesh’, alluding to Lynn Mason as the executioner is an example of how rich it is in description.
The imagery of death continues in Yop’s metaphoric description regarding Tom’s departure, “I mean the body’s not even cold yet.” 18 Kath’s scorpion tattoo whose tail is wrapped around her left wrist is another symbol of death. This is in stark contrast to Tom Mota’s ‘tattoo of barbed wire snaked around his biceps’ signaling his individuality with the fence keeping the corporation out.
The theme of individuality continues with Tom’s donning of the red polo after he is sacked. Our attention is drawn to the colours of Benny and Jim’s polos, one blue and one green, both colours from the same part of the spectrum. This designates Benny and Jim as being from the same group compared to Tom’s red polo which is on the other side of the colour spectrum, signifying Tom’s individuality.
The red theme is also connected to the tomatoes Tom wants to grow, an example showing Lyostad’s concept of Tom’s needs as a person as different to the needs of the system.
The system is about materialism as seen through the use of semiotics in Yop’s chair, a sign, of materialism, his chair was ‘wonderful’, ‘adjustable’19 and it raises the concept of individual versus corporate through the confusion about ownership.
“Nothing ever belonged to Tom. Nothing belongs to anyone here…”20
Individuality is seen as hopelessness when Yop, crying, says, “It was the whole feeling of being me.”21
Therefore, Ferrris’ use of first person plural narrative in Then We Came to the End22 is a device used to include both the reader and characters within the narrative. It encapsulates the workplace as a group-think structure where individuality is akin to death, and where individuals combine to become a corporate animal, thinking, eating and drinking as one.