We wanted to read a novel for once, so we chose this one, by Joshua Ferris, about employees at a big Chicago ad agency during the dot-com bust of the late 1990s. The novel was critically well-received when it came out in 2007, garnering a National Book Award nomination for Ferris on his very first book. It was notable for its breadth, its humor, its unusual focus on the workplace, and its use, almost entirely throughout, of the “We” voice, being narrated by the collective staff of the agency. (If you have trouble imagining how this would play out, just keep reading this post.)
Those of us who had signed on for this journey—apart from Ken, who had read the book before—were either wary of the book’s unusual point-of-view choice or charmed by it, depending on our individual literary histories and preferences. Ken told us it took some getting used to, so those of us who were hesitant mostly stuck with it.
Some of us weren’t bothered so much by the unusual voice as we were by the somewhat more shallow focus that it allowed on the novel’s characters. Others were put off by the petty minutiae on which the voice seemed fixated, especially during the long opening chapters, although some of those same readers—Robin for one—were eventually sucked in by this.
The book club meeting itself fell on a busy Tuesday morning and so the meeting time was changed from 10 to 8 a.m. with very little notice. In the end, only four readers showed up for the discussion, lured by the promise of donuts from Rocket 88.
Though we weren’t all happy with the novel as a whole (some of us, like Kristin, found the events of the later chapters unrealistic) all four attendees were interested in the idea of a workplace community, and we found ourselves musing about its importance in our own lives.
Those of us who have worked at Well Done for several years (especially Ken, who had of course been there since the beginning, and Traci, who worked at Well Done when it was still in the house on Prospect Street) recalled how the agency seemed like a different place when different people worked there, only to take on a completely different character when those people left and new people arrived. Since the past year has seen a lot of new people arrive at Well Done, we were all pretty taken with this idea. We wondered whether we truly understand exactly who we are now, or whether this iteration of Well Done is even still a work in progress.
Speaking of works in progress, we wondered: Why aren’t there more novels written about the workplace, given its importance in our lives? And why not more novels about the advertising business in particular? Less than one percent of the US population serves in the military and an even smaller percentage are professional detectives of any kind (private or public), and yet the number of novels focusing on these types of work are legion.
Take it from us (and from Joshua Ferris): It’s not for lack of interesting stories. Which we shall incorporate, heavily veiled, into our future novels, art installations, and motivational presentations. Consider yourselves fairly warned.
Photo from “Post-it time!” by Ignacio Palomo Duarte (https://flic.kr/p/8QjDJy) via Flickr Creative Commons.