My Favorite Books of 2007: Then We Came to the End
I didn’t really want to like Then We Came to the End. It’s set in an office much like the one in which I worked for five years, and it seemed like it would be the kind of book that, had I applied myself—or, like, had I had the idea—I could have written. Well, I was wrong: I could not have written this book. It’s brilliant, and my own baby steps into fiction (one story [ahem.] published in a magazine for girls, a tidy little pile of rejection letters with great potential for future growth) demonstrate a puny fraction of the skill and craft on display in Joshua Ferris’s debut.
You may have heard of this book. You may know that it was a finalist for the National Book Award, but, if you know anything at all about this book, you probably know that it’s narrated, mostly, in the second-person plural.* This is a bold move, an aesthetic maneuver at which it would have been so very easy to fail. Ferris not only pulls it off, he makes it sing. His “we” captures the sort of collective consciousness that grows among corporate wage slaves, but that doesn’t mean that his narrator moves through the novel as a lumpen mass. His narrator is more like a guardian angel of the cubicles, soaring above the oatmeal-colored carpet, possessing an awareness of its own but also able to zoom in and out of individual cubicles and the minds of their inhabitants. It’s kind of exhilarating, really.
And then it stops. The second part of the novel is rendered in traditional third-person omniscient. It’s hard for me to describe how upset I was about this transition. I felt betrayed. I thought that such a risky maneuver required total commitment to make it work, and I was disappointed that Ferris had lost his nerve. I also missed the collective narrator. It was funny and cannily observant and I liked it.
But I kept reading, and I am so glad I did. By the novel’s close, everything that Ferris has done makes sense. That middle section turns out to be the story of two characters, the one being written about and the one doing the writing. In restoring the possibility of individuality for these two characters, Ferris suggests that all his characters might regain their humanity—or, perhaps, that they never really lost it in the first place. This is a novel that will earn rueful laughs from office workers (and office veterans), but its appeal goes far beyond that demographic. This is a novel about people, and it’s wonderful.
* And at this point I can’t seem to help but mention that I just finished an advance readers’ copy of a strikingly similar book—set in an office, collective narrator—coming out this May. I’m not suggesting that the author of this forthcoming book copped his moves from Ferris. I would imagine that he was working on his manuscript well before Ferris’s book was published, and it’s impossible not to speculate about his state of mind when he first got wind of Then We Came to the End. Was it like seeing his doppelganger crossing the street? Did it fill him with dread? Did he call his editor immediately, or did he stop taking her calls for weeks? I don’t know, of course, but I do feel kind of sorry for the guy.
I don’t like Hillary Clinton, but I feel bad about not liking Hillary Clinton, and the reasons why are as follows:
First, I feel like I’m letting Bill down. Seriously, as soon as I realized that I just don’t like Hillary Clinton, I felt bad for Bill. This is, obviously, ridiculous. Fondness for an old president is no reason for choosing a new president. And, moreover: He let me down!
I also feel bad because her likeability has been a campaign issue. Nobody expects male candidates to be pleasant. Requiring that Clinton be likeable is like requiring that she have a sweet, girlish giggle and a nice rack—which would be absurd.
But my lack of liking for Clinton goes beyond the fact that if I was at a party at her house, I would much rather be drinking a beer and, say, watching a cowboy-movie marathon on AMC in the den with Bill than discussing single-payer insurance over chardonnay with Hillary in the living room. I don’t like her because I don’t trust her, for one thing. I think it’s a bit much to call her “Bush-Cheney lite”, but history does suggest that she has ruthless, secretive tendencies that are somewhat reminiscent of the current administration. I find that I am unwilling to endure a national campaign—not to mention at least four years—in which the first two Clinton administrations are rehashed by her many enemies. What she calls “experience”, I call “baggage”, and I get weary just thinking about it. On the whole, I find Hillary Clinton tremendously uninspiring. If she’s the Democratic candidate, I’ll vote for her (I’d vote for a ham sandwich if it was the Democratic candidate), but I won’t be excited about it.
I am, however, excited about Barack Obama. Like, honestly, unironically, seriously excited. And I’m not just excited because, as an Obama supporter, I might one day have the opportunity to chant, “We will, we will Barack you.” It’s not just because Barack Obama carries a picture of me in his wallet. It’s not even because I get to wear this awesome T-shirt.
I’m excited about Barack Obama because Barack Obama is exciting. I think Barbara Ehrenreich captures the pro-Obama mood pretty well in this post. The Bush years have been so tragically, unremittingly awful that I need something new. As a country, we don’t just need good policies: We need a little inspiration. Clinton can argue that “Speeches don’t put food on the table”, but I’m not sure that she’s right. I think that liberal wonkishness alone might not be enough to deliver the kind of real change we need. In yesterday’s New York Times, Representative David R. Obey, who has endorsed Obama, said, “You can’t make much headway on substance until you have somebody who can break through the rancorous atmosphere, build new alliances and cut through old barriers.” I’m not at all convinced that Clinton can do that, and I believe that Obama can. I don’t need a president who’s likeable, but I sure would like to have one who’s exciting.
[THANKS TO RUSTY FOR THE AWESOME LINKS. HE KNOWS WHICH ONES.]
Happy Valentine’s Day
So, on the syllabus for this literary theory class I’m taking, the professor included “Literary Valentines?” among our activities for tonight’s class. I considered this a challenge, so I created a reader-response Valentine to pass out to my colleagues in the Seminar in Critical Problems (doesn’t that just scream “graduate school”?). I am sure that it is going to induce eye-rolling in my fellow students, and it will no doubt be seen as a tangible manifestation of my unwillingness (inability?) to shut the fuck up—ever.* On the other hand, there may be, I don’t know, 17 people in the world who will find this amusing, and I post it here in the hopes that at least 1 or 2 of them visit this blog. Happy Valentine’s Day.
* Hey, Mawrters: Remember how we used to make fun of McBrides? Remember how they would dominate classes and ask questions towards the end of the hour that were absolutely, positively going to force us all to stay late? Well, as you may or may not know, I was a McBride myself when I finally finished my degree, and I totally remain one in spirit.
Happy Birthday, Sarah Hand
Short Story: “The Girl with the Iron Foot”
My first piece of published fiction has just appeared in the January/February issue of New Moon, a magazine edited by girls, for girls. It’s a story called “The Girl with the Iron Foot.” If you’re interested in reading it, I encourage you to purchase a copy of this worthy publication. If, however, you just can’t wait, you can download a pdf version of the entire issue right now. My story starts on page thirty-six.