Saturday, 10 July 2010

Book Group: Then We Came to the End

More than a week to go until the book group meeting, and I’ve already had a complaint about the selection.

“It reads like a supplement,” says Jane. I am apprehensive, although some of the best discussions have been about books that most of the group disliked. In February eight people showed up to slaughter Joyce Carol Oates and had a great time. Jane, however, does not come to the meeting to refine her opinion of ‘Then We Came to the End’ as “trite” or “superficial” or “forced”.

A few days later a customer comes in and remarks on the book group flyers. “I recommended that for my book group, it’s one of my favourites,” she enthuses. “Everyone else hated it, though.”

“I hated this,” Carlotta announces proudly at the meeting. Really? “I couldn’t finish it.” What was wrong with it? “I’m a real character person, and I felt that this didn’t go into enough depth.” I do think it’s a bit overwhelming at first, I say, there are so many characters. I think Ferris is trying to evoke starting a new job and that brief period when you’re learn everyone’s names and it’s hard to keep them clear in your mind. But stick with it. I did think the characters were very well drawn, once they emerged from that collective “we”. Carlotta remains unconvinced. “It just didn’t appeal to me.” How far did you get? “Umm, first sixty pages?” Oh. “And the ending. Since we’re talking about it.”

What did everyone else think? Quite liked it, is the general consensus. The bit with the chair was funny, but it’s bit too close to home sometimes...

“I think that’s what I didn’t like about it,” says Carlotta. “It reminded me of my first job. I would check the clock on my computer every thirty seconds or so...time and life ticking away. It made me feel uncomfortable.”

“Doesn’t that make it a success, then?” someone says.

“Yeah, maybe,” ponders Carlotta.

“I thought he did a really good job of creating that workplace atmosphere.” Mary says. “The pettiness, the bureaucracy...”

Where do you work? I ask.

“A publishing house.”

Funny you should say that, actually...

“I suppose it is a book for our times. More poignant now...” says Carlotta.

When was it written? There is a general scramble for the publication information at the front. 2007. Ah, prescient.

“It must always have been harder in America though,” says Carlotta. “Because there’s so much less support over there if you’re unemployed.”

Someone asks if Ferris has written anything else, and I say that I didn’t think ‘The Unnamed’ was anywhere near as good. I did enjoy reading it in that it felt like being in the company of an old friend, but I didn’t really think it was that clever or dazzling. The highlight was a sweet and funny bit with a father and daughter watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Everyone laughs. The ending wasn’t so great, I say. Kind of like the ending to this. I actually really hate it, I confess: “just you and me”. Awful. I think he balances the “we” perspective really well throughout, but to end it like that is just cheesy and gimmicky. I think he might have been aiming for thought-provoking, like, “Who’s you? Who’s me? Who are we all anyway?”, but I can’t even tell. And yet the closing paragraph before the epilogue just gave me chills:

“In the last week of August 2001, and in the first ten days of that September, there were more layoffs than in all the months preceeding them. But by the grace of god, the rest of us hung on, hating each other more than we ever thought possible. Then we came to the end of another bright and tranquil summer.”

It’s the way it anticipates September the 11th and all that followed without directly stating it. This is an era silently drawing to a close. When you look back on America of the late 1990s and very early 2000s there’s a sort of listlessness and an innocence. But maybe that’s because we’ve redefined it after that watershed moment.

“Interesting. But I didn’t even notice that,” says Mary. There is general agreement.

Maybe I’m reading too much into things, I say.

*Names have been changed.

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