by Howard Lipke
In Joshua Ferris’s clever and insightful first novel, Then We Came to the End, modern business office relationships are explored as the workers work, socialize and cope with life’s inevitable traumatic events. Along with enjoying prosperity and then experiencing the slow collapse of the business and the consequential laying off of the employees, there are the horrors of the abduction and murder of the daughter of one co-worker and a life-threatening cancer diagnosis of a supervisor. (Though not described here, the sections on the response to cancer provide a masterly description of denial and avoidance).
The workers, who are often described as the collective “we” (a remarkable literary device) narrate the novel. They tell of the odd behavior of Janine, the mother of the murdered child, after her loss. In addition to their sensitive, supportive behavior, the collective also surreptitiously observes and gossips about her ritual of taking lunch sitting in a McDonalds play area ball pit.
As events unfold, Janine explains her behavior to the collective:
“It is odd,” Janine admitted to us.
We told Janine that she didn’t need to explain a single thing to any of us.
“No it is,” she insisted. “I know it’s odd. But it is one of her places. She was only nine, you know. She had her places. I still go to the Toys’R’Us, and the Gymboree. They think I’m crazy there, too. The McDonald’s people think I’m just nuts. Both those are my places now too. They became my places. I was with her when she was in those places. But I just don’t know how to give them up yet. I would be there anyway, right, if she had lived?”
We felt like hell. We apologized some more . . . (p. 135)