I decided to read this because of comments I came across while checking out reviews of Ferris’s BASS 2010 story, “The Valetudinarian.” Several people praised this first novel (published 2007) though they weren’t sure about the story. When I found out it was a workplace novel, I had to give it a shot.
I started out loving it. But by page 70 I was wondering if this was all it was going to be; the read started to feel like work. At page 160 I almost gave up. But at page 196, I loved it again, though by page 250 I found myself disappointed, until, at page 300, it suddenly became the book I couldn’t stop reading, until page 385 when we, um, came to the end.
The novel is set mostly in early 2001, when the dot-com boom was going bust but before we could conceive of terrorism as something real and personal. The narrative takes a hiatus after the summer of 2001 and picks up again five years later, a wise choice, I think.
The narrative structure is a little weird. I’ve already pointed out the first person plural had me a little off-balance until I put a little stickie on it and was more able to deal with it. The timeline wobbles like the spiral razor wire on top of a security fence – it goes back, then forward, then over to another segment, and back again, looping and curling to bring several storylines together – which is pretty impressive, now that I’m not struggling with it. Several times I had the same experience as the pianist in The Unconsoled – I’d start to get into something and the train would jump track to something else, which was annoying until the something else became just as interesting but then we’d go back to the original thing but I’d forgotten the names. It took me quite a while to get the names straight, which I think is why I got a little frustrated in the middle.
We have the story of a group of advertising people. If you’ve ever spent any time in a large corporate office, it’s hilarious to recognize the behaviors and situations. For me, it was Computer Services, which became MIS, and even later called itself IT – the whole Dilbert experience, without the tech talk and geek culture. But any corporate setting will do, I think. There’s a story line about chairs. About cancer. About a crush. An illicit affair resulting in pregnancy. A totem pole. And through it all, people are being laid off, or worrying about being laid off, or remembering people who’ve been laid off.
There are gems throughout, but it wasn’t until fairly late that I started marking passages (I’m reading a library copy so I had to settle for flags instead of underlining). Benny has a mad crush on Marcia, and wants to compliment her on her new haircut. He calls it a nice “update” and she takes offense, and he is woebegone – he practiced, the words, the tone of voice, everything, and he still blew it – “He probably should have run it by a copywriter.” That was my first true laugh-out-loud point.
At a later point, a crisis evolves, leading to this insight:
Maybe there was an alternative to wealth and success as the fulfillment of the American dream. Or maybe that was the dream of a different nation, in some future world order, and we were stuck in the dark ages of luxury and comfort. How could we be expected to break out of it, we who were overpaid, well insured, and bonanza’ed with credit, we who were untrained in the enlightened practice of putting ourselves second? As [he] was taking aim at our lives, we felt for a split second the ambiguous, foreign, confounding certainty that maybe we were getting what we deserved.
And there’s a reference to a character who spends a day speaking only in lines from The Godfather, to prove how no one even tries to understand what someone is saying, they just nod and smile and let it go because it doesn’t matter that they don’t understand. This feels very familiar to me, and I wonder if someone told me of this before, or I read a review some time ago (not one of the ones I read recently). I’ve been very frustrated lately with people who either can’t hear me or have no idea what I’m talking about, or don’t remember things I’ve told them before so they miss the point, and it’s true, they just nod and smile. It’s identical to being ignored – what I’m saying isn’t worth the trouble to listen to.
The end of the book is wonderful, whether you define “end” as the last 85 pages or the last 5. For me, the last sentence is perfection – it ties a little bow on the narrator issue, and the title, in a way I’m not even sure I understand, which is what makes it perfect: it’s something I can think about. That’s the advantage of not being super-smart: whereas a genius would absorb it all instantly, it takes me a while, and that’s pleasant time spent.
The book works. It works even when I was sure it wasn’t working. I’m so glad I stuck with it.