Sunday, May 06, 2007

Then We Came to Greatness

It's not easy to recognize or even define artistic greatness. Sometimes it sneaks up on us in a darkened movie theater when we find ourselves glued to our seats at the end of a film, watching the credits roll by, in a daze that we are no longer part of the lives of the film's characters, that we are exiled from the film's world, much as I felt at the end of Children of Men.

Occasionally, we miss greatness entirely, believing what we have read or seen is too strange or too childlike. This was my early reaction in college to Picasso's cubist paintings as I tried to logically put his fragmented figures together in my mind.

Maybe the images or the sounds are too dissonant and jarring, and we don't realize that we are in the company of a true genius because it is almost painful to hear or watch. I still can't get a grasp on jazz legend Ornette Coleman's atonal blaring.

There are even times when we just can't bring ourselves to join the crowd in acknowledging true magnificence. I have a dear friend who claims that he can't stand the Beatles. They are too cloying, in his opinion. When I caught him singing along to "We Can Work it Out," in a restaurant one day, he denied it. I've had conversations with seemingly rational people about "The Sopranos," perhaps the greatest thing in television history, and they are dismissive because of the violence or because the mafia genre is overdone or simply because it is television.

My rumination on the nature of greatness leads me to this: I stumbled upon a truly great novel a couple of weeks ago, yet I didn't realize its greatness while I was reading it. To say I accidentally read Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End is a bit dishonest. After all, it got a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review. A few days after that review, a copy arrived at my house from the publisher, Little Brown.

I began reading a few pages at a time, between weightier tomes and books that I had obligations to plow through. At first, I was humored by Ferris' sitcom-like subject matter (the office of a marketing firm during the late 1990s) and the sense of doom that pervades this novel from the beginning. The first line of the book is: "Layoffs were upon us."

I found some of the goofier tales hard to believe. Do people really play so many practical inane jokes upon their co-workers? Do employees really have hours and hours of time to kill telling silly stories? I told my wife about this believability crisis I was having, and she mentioned a story she'd heard from the husband of a fellow teacher at her school, who worked in a corporate marketing firm. He recently returned from a week-long business trip to discover that everything in his cubicle was gift-wrapped. His keyboard, his mouse, the phone, all of his photos, his pens, his reports -- even his desk, for crying out loud -- were all meticulously wrapped. When I got to an incident in Ferris' novel that frighteningly mirrored this man's life, I suddenly realized that one man's sitcom is another man's reality show.

I was also intrigued by the novel's unique point of view. Then We Came to the End is the first novel I have ever read narrated in the first-person plural, the "we." The marketing firm's underlings all combine to speak in one voice. It's strangely disconcerting and humorous at first, and it serves to keep the reader at an arms-length from the characters in the opening pages. But gradually, through the jocular tone and the unusual point of view that functions essentially as a limited omniscient narrator (with at least one person in the "we" seeming to know everything that happens in the marketing firm) a cast of compassionate and quite complex characters emerge.

What seems to start as a gimmicky literary device develops into an essential backbone of this tale. Ferris completely pulls it off, and you simply cannot imagine this story being told so well in any other voice. It's simply a miracle in style, discipline and imagination. The last time I tried to give myself wholeheartedly to an alternative point of view like this was Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, with it's edgy second-person "you" narrative. That novel didn't end well for me, and I've stayed safely in the realm of first and third person narrations for the last twenty years.

As you get to know the office workers -- the angry Tom Mota, who's wife has left him, the inscrutable supervisor Joe Pope, the insecure pill-popping Carl Garbedian, the grieving Janine Gorjanc, the storytelling confidante Benny Shassburger and the ruthless Karen Woo -- to name just a few, it becomes tempting to guess just which one at anytime is contributing to the "we" narrative. But the story moves so swiftly and develops so compassionately, that it's not worth trying to figure it out.

Slowly, the jokes start receding into the background, while the gossip of their boss' breast cancer and the terrifying realities of the layoffs move to the foreground. Ferris deftly explores so many critical issues of contemporary society in these pages. His sterile workplace of cubicles, desks and chairs and white walls, turns out to be a world of intense humanity where issues of death, illness and love are played out.

What do we owe one another in our work relationships? In one storyline, the rumors of breast cancer reach a crescendo, and the employees finally start to realize that perhaps their boss needs their help to deal with the issue. Maybe action, rather than just simple gossip, is needed. In another, the mother of a dead child is so stricken with grief that she goes to the local McDonald's and sits in rubber balls up to her neck in the PlayLand area during lunch. Her co-workers secretly spy on her for days, until they are caught gawking by their supervisor. When the extent of her grief is finally acknowledged, the craziest, seemingly most unfeeling of the workers does something heroic to alleviate her pain.

Ferris briefly changes the humorous tone of the novel for a chapter halfway through, entitled, "The Thing to Do and the Place to Be." Almost everything about this 35-page section is different from the rest of the book. A measured, limited third-person narrative replaces the previously ubiquitous chorus, and the story is all about Lynn Mason, the boss with breast cancer. It's the evening before her surgery, and she's at a loss about how to spend the time, agonizing between calling her ex-lover and spending the night alone. In the end, she returns to her office, choosing her true love, work.

It's hard to describe the impact that this section has on the novel. From this point on, there is true pathos behind all of the silly humor. We also know, without a doubt, that we are in the hands of a brilliant writer. Stripped of his literary gimmick, Ferris reveals himself in this Lynn Mason chapter as an author of startling prose power, capable of producing conventional scenes as rich as Alice McDermott at her finest.

By the end of the novel, our initial impressions of this world that is dying have been completely altered. The layoffs never stop, bankruptcy is inevitable, and the people in the "we" become fewer and fewer; yet an underlying humanity remains. It will forever be impossible to think about the people stuck in those endless cubicles in the high-rises of every city in the same way, or even to watch the comedy show The Office without the realization that wherever there are people, there is the full breadth and scope of the human experience.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this novel for the past few weeks. That was the first clue that I had read something more than merely good and entertaining. It has only gradually dawned on me that Ferris' work was not just a successful literary experiment, but great literature. For me, it joins a select few novels from that last six years, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Any Human Heart by William Boyd, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, that truly strive for and reach genius. I must note that I have not read Cormac McCarthy's The Road yet and have been told that it too is a singular novel.

I try not to make too many literary proclamations about awards, but I will say that if this novel does not win the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, they may as well just stop honoring novels.