annotation by Diane Sherlock
Then We Came To The End, titled from DeLillo’s Americana, begins in first person plural, a technique that holds up for about a hundred pages and is intermittently successful after that. Fortunately, the author punctuates the narrative with other points of view. First person plural is an effective choice to convey office life at a large advertising firm in Chicago, “How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and though hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space.”
The author uses this point of view to great effect for many aspects of office life. The two omissions noted were arguments around food which he covers by glossing over a break room without a refrigerator and the territorial skirmishes common in large offices, but the book succeeds without them.
The first person plural point of view is broken up by dropping into conversations around the office and occasionally into someone’s first person point of view. The tone falters at page 95 for about twenty pages. The author rather than the narrator emerges to center stage only to slip back behind the scenes and recover the original tone. Amid the gossip and petty concerns in the office, there are glimpses into a couple of ad campaigns, most notably one for breast cancer that runs through the narrative. This parallels the experience of one of the creative vice presidents who is rumored to have breast cancer and a canceled operation.
There is a prologue exclusively in first person plural, “You Don’t Know What’s in My Heart,” followed by the first half of the book titled, “Enter a New Century.” On page 196, a new section, sort of an interlude, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be” varies between simple past and third person present tense about the female creative vice president gossiped about in the first section. “Returns and Departures” is the final section and mirrors “Enter a New Century” in its structure, including chapters with all of the subheadings stacked at the beginning: “ON NOT GETTING IT – BENNY SPOTS CARL – HOSING THE ALLEYWAY” but the distance created by the structure and layout enhance the feel of a corporate office environment.
The interlude with Lynn Mason, the creative vice president, begins on the night before her cancer surgery and builds into a touching portrait of a woman who has put all of her energy into work and is alone facing the loss of her breast and possibly her life. She is introduced early on, “Lynn Mason was intimidating, mercurial, unapproachable, fashionable, and consummately professional…. She dressed like a Bloomingdale’s model and ate like a Buddhist monk.” As her team works on a pro bono ad ordered to elicit laughs from breast cancer patients, a task they regard as impossible, she comes to terms with her overwhelming fear, especially of the hospital. The author explores her waning relationship with an attorney who devises a way to circumvent her fear with a blindfold, “‘Like you’re a pirate’s captive,’ he said, ‘and you’ve just been told to walk the plank.’” This close up on Lynn provides the heart of a novel that otherwise would be an interesting exercise in first person plural.
The last major section delves into the lives of the key characters set up before the interlude, resolving several, but not all, by the end. Because these are tied together and repeated – the breast cancer, the steady firings due to downsizing, the individual dramas -the narrative builds emotional intensity. The first person plural allows the reader to feel part of the office and there is enough close observation on the politics, in-jokes, and minutiae of general office life to provide amusement and authenticity. There is also a minor character who returns in the coda at the end with a book written and published after his layoff, excerpted from the earlier interlude with Lynn.
Within the first person plural, individual characters are peeled away as they are let go, “At first we called it what you would expect – getting laid off, being let go…. Lately a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. “Walking Spanish down the hall.” Somebody had picked it up from an old Tom Waits song, but it was an old, old expression as we learned from our Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.” All the way through the book, various employees ‘walk Spanish’ until the book takes a serious turn and the language changes first to “They let go of Marcia Dwyer.” to “When next they came for Amber, a few weeks after that, we said she was tossed into the streetlamp outside the building without any concern for her unborn baby.”
The most valuable parts of the book for my writing were the point of view and the use of language with repeated phrases and narrative threads to tie it together in a different way. There’s a linear element to the narrative, but it’s not a story traditionally told. It helped me consider new ways to convey story and build emotion that may not directly apply to my current novel, but which I may consider for future work. The book is occasionally uneven, but largely successful, with an ending that nicely sums up the layoffs and pays off the initial point of view.