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3 January 2009 / April

The things they carried as they came to the end

If you’ve read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I challenge you to read Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End without feeling that the two are in fact the exact same book, just the former about a war in Vietnam and the latter about layoffs in an advertising agency.

For one thing, the writing style is eerily similar in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.  Everything is very plainly yet eloquently stated.  Sentences are short and to the point.  Except when they’re long and elaborate and something like a stream of consciousness, full of commas and clauses and ending in a way that takes your breath away because it’s still, somehow, to the point.

There’s also the way both authors circle events, retelling things out of chronological order.  The introductory chapters of both are uncannily similar in their fragmented states, touching on many different things and setting the stage for more continuous narrative to come.  And more fragments too.

I know this is terribly dull and useless information to people who haven’t read TTTC, but I need to get it out of my system because until it’s out there, it’s all I can think about with relation to the book.  Here’s an extended quote from the first two pages of TWCTTE, which hopefully will interest you with Ferris’ phenomenal writing, while those who have read TTTC can also marvel at the similarities.

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.  […] 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.

Lynn Mason was dying.  She was a partner in the agency.  Dying?  It was uncertain.  She was in her early forties.  Breast cancer.  No one could identify exactly how everyone had come to know this fact.  Was it a fact?  Some people called it a rumor.  But in fact there was no such thing as a rumor.  There was fact, and there was what did not come up in conversation.

And on and on.  I could reread this book all day and type the whole thing up here for you to read too (and subsequently get sued for copyright infringement), because it’s incredible.

You started out reading that passage and thinking, “Come on, April, this is about the stupid banalities of the modern day, not truth and war and courage.”  But then you kept reading, and suddenly Ferris is writing about immortality and your TTTC alarms are going off like crazy.  And then there’s death.  And even truth.  And your TTTC alarms explode.

Which is a pity, because I was wonder what their decibel level would be if I told you about the chapter in the middle of the novel, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be,” which strongly reminded me of “Speaking of Courage” in TTTC while I was reading it.  Both seem self-contained, somehow, even though neither really is.  I thought it was a coincidence.  It wasn’t.  The theme of truth in stories versus truth in the “real world” is not as huge in TWCTTE as it is in TTTC, but it is still present.

Your initial reaction, about office life being trivial compared to the Vietnam War, is a legitimate one.  It’s true: office life is pretty damn trivial in the grand scheme of things.  I’m sure Ferris knows that.  The characters in his book, gossiping and scheming and battling over office chairs, know that; the book begins with the unambiguous statement, “We were fractious and overpaid.  Our mornings lacked promise.”

But even as we all (maybe not office peons, but on a similar plane of existence) feel small for our puny insignificant goals in life, Ferris– perhaps in large part through the act of writing a book on the subject– miraculously endues us with meaning.  O’Brien makes you feel like you could never, not in a thousand lifetimes, understand what he’s saying unless you yourself have fought in a war.  (And how many among us have?)  But Ferris makes you instantly understand what he’s saying, because we have lived it.  I have to give you another quote.  I’m sorry, this is the shittiest book review in existence.

We liked to gather in Benny’s office.  He came back with a full mug and said, “So yesterday–”

We could hardly look at him.  “What?” he said.  We told him he had something– “Where?”  It was on his lip.  He went searching.  It was on the other side.  We hoped to god he would find it soon.  Finally he thumbed it off and looked at it.  “Cream cheese,” he said.  There were bagels?  “In the kitchen,” he replied.  Benny’s story would have to wait for those of us wanting bagels.

I should stop speaking for all of us, but whether you feel the same way or not, that’s my life to a “t”.  I know the annoyance of talking to someone with a spot of food on their mouth that they can’t find.  I know lure of free bagels.

So too do I feel when Ferris later speculates on the American dream (high schoolers, substitute “dream of college acceptance” or whatever) and its inescapability (“We suffered failures of imagination just like everyone else, our daring was wanting, and our daily contentment too nearly adequate for us to give it up”).  Of course it’s trivial.  But when Ferris tells us, it’s not insulting.  It’s almost glorifying.

Now, the elephant in the living room: the first person plural narration.  In the interview at the back of the paperback edition, Ferris calls it the “corporate we” as opposed to the “royal we,” which I think is an apt characterization, particularly since it comes from the author himself.

It’s not at all awkward, as you may think it would be.  It basically acts as a third person omniscient; in fact, it’s almost better suited for the omniscient part, because as the “we” includes all the characters (with some exceptions), it’s natural that it can slide into the thoughts and point of view of any of them.  You can pretty much replace all the “we”s with “they”s and convey the same idea of a conglomerate, but the “we” has the added bonus of suggesting the inclusion of you, the reader, which contributes greatly to the understanding I was talking about before.

There was one thing that bothered me as I read the novel (yes!  Can you believe it?), bothered me a lot in fact, and that was the way he references September 11 as if it were a huge turning point in the plot that would soon be illuminated, when in fact it was apparently nothing of the sort.  (That was arguably a spoiler, so uh, sorry.)  I’m still a little at a loss as to how to explain it.  All I can come up with is that maybe 9/11 is so integral to Americanness that you can allude to it as a major event without it actually being one in the particular story.

Okay, it still bothers me, but not unbearably so.  Because even with such a flaw, TWCTTE is a thoroughly wonderful book: hilarious and moving and startlingly truthful.  And yes, startlingly similar to TTTC.  Only better.

(Not only the shittiest book review in existence, but also apparently the longest.)

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Rafael Lizarralde / Jan 3 2009 10:08 pm

    I think that is the case with 9/11. Anything that you can refer to by date and have everyone (even around the world) understand seems like it could be referred to as a major event without being an integral part of a story.

  2. Kati / Jan 3 2009 10:10 pm

    Wow. I realized that TTTC has lost almost all its sense of literary significance to me. It’s like “Kay, what was that book again?”

    One thing about AP lit is that the books all just sort of blend together in the background after very short amounts of time.

  3. April / Jan 4 2009 12:21 pm

    Raffi: If my mom hadn’t STOLEN MY BOOK, I would provide the quote and maybe you would be as annoyed as I was. Or maybe not, who knows.

    Kati: Huh, I haven’t really experienced that… I have a really short term memory when it comes to books, unless I’ve studied them.

Trackbacks

  1. mark larson | Then We Came to the End (review: 3.5/5)

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