Long-time readers may recall that I mentioned this debut novel back in June of last year. It has – finally – just been published, and if you’re looking for something non-musical to read, you genuinely cannot go wrong with Then We Came To The End.
Don’t let any lazy comparisons to the TV show “The Office” put you off (as much as I enjoy that show). This novel is a different project, and a different experience, entirely. I read it 8 months ago, and the voice of it is still ringing around my brain – that’s a pretty rare feat for a novel.
Here’s an extract from very near the start of the book.
We thanked each other. It was customary after every exchange. Our thanks were never disingenuous or ironic.We said thanks for getting this done so quickly, thanks for putting in so much effort. We had a meeting and when a meeting was over, we said thank you to the meeting makers for having made the meeting. Very rarely did we say anything negative or derogatory about meetings. We all knew there was a good deal of pointlessness to nearly all the meetings and in fact one meeting out of every three or four was nearly perfectly without gain or purpose but many meetings revealed the one thing that was necessary and so we attended them and afterward we thanked each other.
Karen Woo always had something new to tell us and we hated her guts for it. She would start talking and our eyes would glaze over. Might it be true, as we sometimes feared on the commute home, that we were callous, unfeeling individuals, incapable of sympathy, and full of spite toward people for no reason other than their proximity and familiarity? We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves. Should we quit? Would that solve it? Or were those qualities innate, dooming us to nastiness and paucity of spirit? We hoped not.
Marcia Dwyer became famous for sending an e-mail to Genevieve Latko-Devine. Marcia often wrote to Genevieve after meetings. “It is really irritating to work with irritating people,” she once wrote.There she ended it and waited for Genevieve’s response. Usually when she got Genevieve’s e-mail, instead of writing back, which would take too long – Marcia was an art director, not a writer-she would head down to Genevieve’s office, close the door, and the two women would talk. The only thing bearable about the irritating event involving the irritating person was the thought of telling it all to Genevieve, who would understand better than anyone else. Marcia could have called her mother, her mother would have listened. She could have called one of her four brothers, any one of those South Side pipe-ends would have been more than happy to beat up the irritating person. But they would not have understood. They would have sympathized, but that was not the same thing. Genevieve would hardly need to nod for Marcia to know she was getting through. Did we not all understand the essential need for someone to understand? But the e-mail Marcia got back was not from Genevieve. It was from Jim Jackers. “Are you talking about me?” he wrote. Amber Ludwig wrote, “I’m not Genevieve.” Benny Shassburger wrote, “I think you goofed.” Tom Mota wrote, “Ha!” Marcia was mortified. She got sixty-five e-mails in two minutes. One from HR cautioned her against sending personal e-mails. Jim wrote a second time. “Can you please tell me – is it me, Marcia? Am I the irritating person you’re talking about?”
Marcia wanted to eat Jim’s heart because some mornings he shuffled up to the elevators and greeted us by saying, “What up, my niggas?” He meant it ironically in an effort to be funny, but he was just not the man to pull it off. It made us cringe, especially Marcia, especially if Hank was present.
In those days it wasn’t rare for someone to push someone else down the hall really fast in a swivel chair. Games aside, we spent most of our time inside long silent pauses as we bent over our individual desks, working on some task at hand, lost to it – until Benny, bored, came and stood in the doorway. “What are you up to?” he’d ask.
It could have been any of us. “Working” was the usual reply. Then Benny would tap his topaz class ring on the doorway and drift away.
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 thought 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. There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with our two minds.
There seemed to be only the one electric pencil sharpener in the whole damn place.