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.
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.
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.