Silver Spring, MD—A local man has created a significant media buzz simply by—finally—finishing a book he’d been reading.
Charles Jensen of Silver Spring recently declared triumphantly, “Oh my god!” as he set down his slightly worn copy of National Book Award nominee Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End.
“I felt like I’d been reading it forever,” Jensen recently told the Associated Press, who contacted him for an interview soon after the story broke in the region. In actuality, Jensen had been reading it for about seven weeks, started it, to the best of his recollection, on his first trip back to Phoenix in early September, for the Labor Day holiday. “It’s not the longest it’s ever taken me to read a book,” Jensen went on, “but it’s close.”
Jensen assured reporters the quality of the prose was not an issue in his reading schedule. “Actually, I pretty much loved it,” he countered. Jensen described the book as “satirical,” but with “empathy” for the plight of the modern office worker. Then We Came to the End is set in an ad agency at the the start of this decade during a worrisome period of downsizing, layoffs, and office hysteria as seen through the eyes of a collective “we.” The book’s signature third-person-plural narration was unique to Jensen, and part of its compelling storytelling. “Having worked in office environments for most of my adult life, I can say the ‘corporate we,’ as Ferris calls it, is often at work in the cultures of organizations no matter their size, scope, or product.”
Although the narration relies on this “we” voice describing the series of events, individual characters step out of the collective, generally when their behavior or ideas conflict with the other members of the group. Some characters, such as agency VP Lynn Mason, are pointedly not part of the “we” voice, while others, like Joe Pope, who also holds a kind of management position in the agency, floats in and out but generally prefers to remain an outsider.
Quirky characters abound in the novel, and Jensen claims this is likely because at work we are often distilled or miniaturized version of ourselves. “We don’t bring our whole lives with us to work every day,” he opined. “We’re often forced by the culture and the people around us to simplify our personalities into easily digestible bites that don’t disrupt the status quo of the group.
Jensen’s only reservation about the book was the sudden jarring effect of a section narrated from Lynn Mason’s solitary point of view (in third person), detailing the events of several days in her life outside the office. Although the author claimed this section “humanized” Lynn for the reader, Jensen actually felt, in a way, as if it caused him to lose respect for her. “Our supervisors are often faceless in some ways. We don’t get to know them in quite the same way we know our peers, so for the reader to exist within the collective ‘we’ and then suddenly see life as a fly on Lynn’s wall…well, it was disjunctive.”
Jensen, who has never met Joshua Ferris, but wouldn’t mind doing so, cites a sudden increase in air travel as an assistance to him finding the time to read the book. “I’ve been so busy lately and if it hadn’t been for the good pilots at Southwest Airlines taking five hours to get to Arizona, I’d probably still be reading.” When he did read the book, Jensen said he often felt “transfixed” or “hypnotized” by the inclusive nature of the story, and, at times, felt a longing for the collective at the ad agency. “I got to know them better than I’ve known some real coworkers,” Jensen said. “They all had such complex lives—you just never knew who was going to blow up.”
Jensen says he recommends this book to others regularly. “It’s a little on the long side, but it does read fast.” Jensen says you don’t need to work at an ad agency to appreciate the book’s satirical humor, but that office experience does help. “It’s sort of like how you appreciate Dilbert so much more after you’ve spoken with someone who works in HR.”