Cubicles of mass destruction

Right around the time that the NASDAQ crashed, I sat through a presentation on office furniture. The salespeople, armed with PowerPoint and shiny smiles, gushed about the cutting-edge furnishings they were going to bestow upon us.

It was patterned on a hexagonal format that mimicked honeycombs and open arms. In other words, we were good little worker bees who deserved desks that said "hug me." When the Q-and-A started, I was briefly in fear for their lives. (The company I worked for ultimately went a different way.)

Office furniture, as anyone who's ever coveted an Aeron chair from the depths of their cubicle knows, looms larger than the average dinette set.

For one thing, unless you're a waiter, you spend way more time at your desk than you ever will at a dining table. For another, if you don't like your table, you can save up and get a different one.

If you don't like your desk? Well, at least you can put up pictures of your pets and kids to disguise it a little. The premier example of this phenomenon is Milton, from Mike Judge's '90s cult classic "Office Space." Milton will endure any indignity as long as he can keep his red Swingline stapler.

In his very funny debut novel, Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris gives us Milton's spiritual heir: Chris Yop, a 40-something ad man who will risk arrest for the sake of "his" office chair.

Set at a Chicago ad agency at the turn of the century, Ferris's novel is for anyone who chuckles over "Dilbert," can recite lines from "Office Space," or has an appointment on Thursday nights with "The Office." "Then We Came to the End" is a vicious sendup of cubicle culture that somehow manages not to lose sight of its characters' humanity.

This is especially impressive, since Ferris's narrator is an unnamed worker explaining everything to the reader using the collective "we."

"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. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently...."

When it comes to their actual work, Ferris spares readers no pain and insists on demonstrating exactly how mind-numbing it all is. "Our business was advertising," he explains, "and details were important. If the third number after the second hyphen in a client's toll-free number was a six instead of an eight, and if it went to print like that, and showed up in Time magazine, no one reading the ad could call now and order today. No matter they could go to the website, we still had to eat the price of the ad. Is this boring you yet? It bored us every day. Our boredom was ongoing, a collective boredom, and it would never die because we would never die."

Then the NASDAQ fizzles, and to the collective shock of workers used to growing fat off the "new economy," layoffs hit hard. "What we didn't consider was that in a downturn, we were the mismanaged inventory, and we were about to be dumped like a glut of imported circuit boards."

Every day, those who are left meet to gossip. They gossip about the newly departed, about who swiped the best stuff from the now empty offices, about who is likely to be next. They gossip about the thief who's been stealing personal items from cubicles, about whether the fired Tom Mota really will come back with a gun to blow everyone away, about the personal tragedies their co- workers are grappling with, and about the pranks played on the hated middle manager, Joe Pope.

These range from a sushi roll taped behind his wall to a nasty slur scrawled with a Sharpie. In between gossip sessions, they try to look busy – no easy feat since the only work left is a pro bono campaign of which no one can make heads or tails.

Ferris breaks narrative point of view only once: Their supervisor, Lynn Mason, who "dressed like a Bloomingdale's model and ate like a Buddhist monk," is rumored to be battling cancer. The night before her rumored surgery (despite the fact that everyone knows everyone else better than their own families do, real information is surprisingly hard to nail down), Ferris leaves the office to follow Lynn home. It's a poignant chapter around which the whole novel pivots.

If Ferris were just being clever and snarky, "Then We Came to the End," would buckle in on itself long before the warm-hearted epilogue. But even his most gonzo creation is given a sympathetic aspect that saves him from caricature.

This is not to say that the office is entirely a realistic creation. For example, the law of averages alone should mean you could find at least one happy marriage in an agency that occupied three floors of a skyscraper. (And on a side note, I got very tired of the phrase "walking Spanish down the hall," which Ferris borrows from Tom Waits, although I guess he had to come up with something besides "laid off.")

But Ferris allows enough sunlight to filter in through the fluorescents that a reader is left wishing his characters well as they polish up their résumés, dry-clean their interview suits, and head off to the next chapter in their lives.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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