Monday, June 7, 2010

Joshua Ferris's Day Off, pt. 1

Reading Joshua Ferris feels a lot like watching premium cable. There's a sharpness, a cleanness to the images, the sort of deft editing that suggests real time and effort and money went into the enterprise; the work gestures toward the great recent auteurs of the medium knowingly, but without heavy-handed homage; there's drama, even melodrama, but it's reigned in, never devolving to sweeps-week absurdity. The sex is tasteful, the portrayals of characters beg to be labeled "funny and wise." And yet in both cases, the aesthetic often seems to be determined not by a single, obsessed human mind, but rather by a sort of highbrow corporate sensibility, a "The-Way-We-Live-Now" checklist complete with defanged satire and cutesy asides. It's not dumb, but it's not unsettling. "It's not TV," as those surreal HBO ads insist -- but it's not quite anything else, either.

Or at least that was true of Ferris's first novel, the widely acclaimed Then We Came to the End. I think I'm the only person in America who thought that debut was a bone-crunching flop, the chalk outline reminder of what happens when a brilliant premise (and mind-blowing opening chapter) plummets to its grisly doom. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Like some sort of Manchurian Candidate brainwashee, I viewed its famous book trailer online one morning and seconds later, found myself half-jogging down the block to my local independent bookstore, my Hello Kitty pajama top tucked into the pockets of my jeans, thinking something to the effect, "The Virgin Suicides meets 'The 300 Pound CEO' meets Revolutionary Road meets Office Space meets, oh kill me now, this will be a fucking masterpiece!" And then it had the gall not to be.

Then We Came to the End betrayed me in two major ways. First, and perhaps most unforgivably, it abandons its own weird and twisted first-person-plural narration midway through in favor of a close-third-person section I described at the time as "a Cathy cartoon about cancer," a yucky, pandering subplot in which a strong, career-driven woman finds herself filled to the brim with regret about neglecting her personal life in the face of her breast tumor. The night before her surgery, she takes solace in a local Nordstrom's, I kid you not, and Ferris actually, unforgivably, writes the words, "And all of it soured by the lack of the one thing she wants: not likely to find Martin here in the women's shoe department, is she?" (Just once before I die, I want to read a story where a chick's true passion is her work -- where an unrepentant female CEO shouts into a conference call from her hospital bed: "Julian, Edna, they're shaving me down -- I'm going to have to put you on speaker.")

Whatever happened to dying with dignity?

But, sexual politics aside, I hated this section with a blinding passion simply because of its aesthetic laziness. For me, part of the thrill of stunt narration -- you know the oddball kind I mean: second person, weird dialect, rotating firsts, a parody of another form (academic annotations, epistolary, diary, kids' books) and of course first-person-plural -- is that "how's he gonna get out of this one?" moment that comes when it occurs to the reader that the story is going somewhere the speaker can't easily follow. You see stunt narration a lot in short fiction (Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl," Rick Moody's "Boys") at least partly, I think, because its authors tend to paint themselves into corners at the first stroke of the brush. That's not intended as criticism -- there's something extraordinarily satisfying about a perfect miniature -- but there's something to be said for the tour de force that takes that and raises it one, that insists on letting the crazy voice determine the shape of an entire book. As much as I admire the craft of screenwriting, I also love when the idea for a story could only be a novel -- when a seeming gimmick of POV in time reveals itself to be inseparable from the meaning of the book's events. The aforementioned Virgin Suicides, as well as recent novels like The Cardboard Universe, The Boy Detective Fails, Letters to Wendy's, and Cloud Atlas all rely on techniques of narration that seem shallowly attention-grabbing, even silly, on the surface. But in committing to the limitations or "rules" of this narration, these authors create fictive realities that then seem to overspill their containers -- that, like the best photographs, leave us craning our necks to look beyond the edges of the frame. I think the reason for this is that these authors bothered to ask themselves "why." Why am I fascinated by this form of narration? What is it about a plural narrator, an encyclopedia, a boy's adventure novel, a restaurant comment card, a story-within-a-story, that makes my heart pound? What is it about this form that irritates me, that foils me at every turn? What is it that this form can never do or say, and what is the shape of that absence? Great writers, I think, work in both positive and negative space: the questions they leave us with are just as specific, as decided-upon, as the answers they provide.

Not so with Joshua Ferris. Here's a real quote from his interview with Powells Books, discussing Then We Came to the End: "It was first person plural, but basically when that got tiresome to me as a writer, I figured it had gotten tiresome for the reader about two sentences back, so I stopped and entered into a third person... It was a kind of fantasia of all the different ways that I had thought about point of view, being a student and just being an admirer of nifty craft decisions." Writers, even the best ones, tend to damn themselves when speaking about their work (with some notable exceptions), so I won't rake Ferris over the coals too much here. But I do think there's something extremely telling about his observation, "when that [narration] got tiresome to me... I figured it had gotten tiresome for the reader about two sentences back." I know next to nothing about etymology, but I've always thought the connection between the word "author" and the word "authority" is a meaningful one: in my opinion, the author should be, after all, not just the creator, but also the resident authority, the expert in the field of his own book. And this expertise is what qualifies the writer, rather than the reader, to dictate the narrative's path.

Much of the best fiction, at least at moments, takes the reader places she does not want to go: it annoys, it confuses, it frustrates, it exhausts. It challenges. And then, ideally, it rewards. Yet Ferris seems unwilling to challenge the reader, because, I suspect, he's not quite willing to challenge himself. He abandons the second person before the reader gets tired of it not simply because he wants to entertain, but also because, if the reader gets tired of a technique, she might begin asking why it was employed in the first place, and that's a question he hasn't concretely posed to himself. He doesn't see himself as an author(ity), but as a "student"; not as a craftsman, but as "an admirer of nifty craft decisions." And that lack of confidence makes him second guess the fundamental brilliance, the audacity, of his own damn premise.

The other thing that bugged me about Then We Came to the End is tougher to couch as a criticism, but I'll try. There's a long tradition in American storytelling of depicting the "little guy" fighting against the forces of corporate authority -- watch any Frank Capra movie or pick up any novel by John Steinbeck and you'll see what I'm talking about. There's also a strong anti-authority strain, in which characters see the homogenizing forces of capitalism and conformity in a struggle not just for their time but for their very souls (see also, Film Career, Jack Nicholson's). Even in Then We Came to the End there's a character who's trying to write a book along these very lines: "a small angry book," he calls it, "about work." What's different about Then We Came to the End, of course (and what ends up being different about this character's book, too) is that it chooses instead to reveal an unexamined truth: these wage slaves like their cage; they love it, actually, and the novel's major threat is the possibility it will be taken away.

To me, that's terrifically accurate and potentially heartbreaking. (There's a reason I adore Kazuo Ishiguro.) Yet -- and here's the problem -- is that, in showing this love of employees for employer, Ferris never goes so far as to suggest that it's truly unrequited, that the folks in power do, in a matter-of-fact and perhaps inevitable but nevertheless profound way, see their employees as expendable. The bosses' greatest fault here is that they hold themselves apart from the warm camaraderie of the speaker "we," but their reasons for this are personal, painful: Lynn, on her cancer deathbed, speaks of how, "All these other people have so much going on in their lives. Vacations, activities. I've never been able to do that"; as a teenager, Joe Pope once stood by and watched a group of his friends beat someone up, and now fears the licensing intimacy of any community: "Joining the club, losing control... That's what I'm guilty of, Genevieve."

But the reason employers hold their employees at a distance isn't just because of private pain and insecurity. It's also because of the inherent power structure of a company, which is dictated by the necessities of capitalism. To put it bluntly, it's because, in order to do their jobs successfully, bosses do have to see their employees in terms of the bottom line. This doesn't make those bosses monstrous, but it's also not a facet of their characters that can be entirely ignored -- especially not in a novel about work, which, as one character points out, is where people spend most of their adult lives. Yet, just as Jonathan Safran Foer wrote an entire novel about 9/11 without having a single character motivated by anger, so has Joshua Ferris written an entire novel about the advertising industry without having a single character motivated by money. For serious, dudes?

Glib, funny, warm, and charming, Then We Came to the End totally enraged me. Yet when Ferris's new novel came out, I found myself intrigued. And I have to say that, though I'm not exactly a fan of The Unnamed, it definitely wasn't what I was expecting. I'll be back in the next few days with my thoughts. Until then, don't touch that dial.


John Wiswell said...

That second paragraph is hilarious. My favorite aspect of your reviews is how you maintain humility despite discussing intellectual topics that normally require insufferable pomp.

You wrote, “Just once before I die, I want to read a story where a chick's true passion is her work” – and I’m relieved that my first novel has at least one such lady, CEO of her country. I’ll have to include the shaving down and the speaker phone setup in the sequel. Would you settle for a Bathroom Monologue?

Tangential to the point of the review, but you mentioned "any novel by John Steinbeck" depicts a little guy fighting against the forces of corporate authority. I don't think this is true. The Grapes of Wrath is about little people, but they struggle mostly at the whims of a depression more than against a corporation. Of Mice and Men has no corporation; The Moon is Down is about insurgency against a foreign government; East of Eden is about family; To a God Unknown is about farm life in a drought; The Winter of Our Discontent is about a possible opportunist. Upton Sinclair might be a better example of an anti-corporatist or anti-wealthy canon.

The Chawmonger said...

Guilty as charged, re: John Steinbeck, John -- that was a total overstatement. I was really just thinking of The Grapes of Wrath (which I would argue does have very anti-corporate themes -- just think of the scene where the company owners burn oranges and dump potatoes in the river, despite starving onlookers, to keep prices competitive). Novellas like Of Mice and Men and The Pearl are concerned with the fate of the little guy against economic and social systems beyond his control and understanding, but not with corporations per se -- you're right. (And I haven't read Steinbeck's other books. Because I suck.)

I really like the idea of a CEO of a country -- I think I heard that Sarah Palin described her governorship of Alaska in those terms just the other day, actually. Your novel sounds awesome, pre-surgery shave-down or no.

Thanks for reading, dude :-)

The Chawmonger said...

(And by "like the idea of a CEO of a country," of course, I mean I find the idea hilarious. And terrifying.)

John Wiswell said...

Always a pleasure to stop by and read, Chandler.

Grapes of Wrath totally does have anti-corporate parts, which feed into the anti-capitalism and general response to the Great Depression. It’s anti-capitalist at almost every level, literally from the sale of a loaf of bread to the farm bosses waiting in California.

And you don't suck for not reading Steinbeck. I haven't read any Ferris yet. I tend to read a lot more old fiction than new (and with 140 books on my reading list, am perpetually arriving to any reading late). Maybe we can cover for each other? If one lacks and has a public speech, buzzes the other to do up some note cards?

I’ll put you down for a “Maybe” on the shave-down teleconference.

Art said...

Glib, funny, warm, and charming, Then We Came to the End totally enraged me.

My sentiments exactly, only it didn't quite enrage me. I found that I felt something wasn't quite right, or that something was missing.

Thanks for the review. I think I liked the book more than you did, but you've really explained well some of its shortcomings.

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks so much for reading, Art! I think a lot of my frustration with Then We Came to the End really was due to my inflated expectations: Ferris's opening, and the device of his central narration with the plural speaker, so dazzled me that I couldn't help but be disappointed by the book as a whole. I think it goes without saying, though, that he's a real talent. I'm just a grouch.

Anyway, I appreciate the comment, and I'm glad you visited the Chaw Shop :-)