Speaking personally (and let's face it, all
reviews are nothing more nor less than one person's opinion,
even when written in the third party under the banner of a
renowned newspaper!) I found Then We Came To The End a
difficult read. That is not to say that it is a bad book but
that the gushing reviews on the cover, and in many places in the
media, telling me that this was a wildly funny book acted as
something of a cold shower to my enjoyment. Knowing I was
supposed to be laughing but finding myself not was like watching
one of those over-eager sitcoms where the laugh track punctuates
the actors' most banal lines, killing whatever residue of humor
might have been found.
Perhaps it is because, having spent many years working in office environments, much of them in an ad agency, I can all too easily recognize the egos in Then We Came To The End, but find their circumstances more pathetic than funny and thus found it hard to laugh at them or with them, even in their slightly larger than life caricatures.
The setting is a Chicago ad agency experiencing the end of the 90's boom years, and the bust that followed. Never have this group of ad men and women worked so hard at looking busy, now that the revenue-generating work has all but dried up. As the months tick by their numbers are reduced inexorably as victims are called to see the Office Coordinator to hear whatever euphemism is being employed at the time but which amounts to the same thing - "you're fired". Once the axe has fallen on the chosen victim there is a temporary hive of activity as those that remain, visibly relieved to have avoided the chop, squabble over the fallen one's office furniture and position in the hierarchy, before closing ranks as if the person had never existed.
The characters remind me of our daughter's small fish tank, a self-contained world filled with a diverse mix of life-forms without a real purpose, looking busy and shooting the breeze with each other, all day every day, oblivious to anything outside of their world, but totally at the mercy of the net that could come and pluck one of their number away at anytime.
To describe Then We Came To The End as "wildly funny", or to suggest that it will resonate with anyone who's ever worked in an office (as some reviewers do) seems to be over-egging things, and also does a disservice to a book that has more to offer than just a good laugh. Then We Came To The End serves up a, sometimes profound, insider's view of a particular time, place and culture, including not just the funny parts, but the dull and stupid bits as well, not to mention the sad and downright strange.
Of course, it should be remembered that this is the viewpoint of a former Brit, who after 15 years in the USA, still doesn't get Seinfeld!
This is what other reviewers have to say:
"[A] wildly funny debut." - Publishers Weekly, starred review.
"Fabulous....with the sort of exuberance and energy that marked Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City." - Chicago Tribune.
"Wonderfully comic. He knows, like other masters of the form, that great comedy has a hard bite." - O Magazine.
"Hilarious....with a cast of fully realized characters....Very, very funny." - The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"Heartfelt and delivered in solemn deadpan. It may even be, in its own modest way, a great American novel." - Los Angeles Times.
This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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