I’ve never worked in an office. I remember a teacher I used to work with swapping for a more ’normal’ job. She spoke of the euphoria she felt when she could go to the toilet, literally, whenever she wanted. Non-teachers don’t understand the true meaning of bladder control, that feeling when you look at your timetable and realise you can’t wee for the next three hours, or when it gets to 5pm and you suddenly realise you haven’t gone since 7:30am and you’ve drunk four cups of coffee. Currently, my bladder is staging some sort of protest, whereby on writing days I tend to go once an hour. I think it’s trying to catch up after seven years of teaching. The other wonderful realisation is that you can have a hot drink whenever you want. Imagine that. One particularly gung-ho Assistant Head made it his personal mission to root out all of those unprofessional members of staff that insisted on carrying drinks to the classroom, so if you didn’t manage to make and finish your drink in fifteen minutes you were stuffed. Needless to say, the first few full days of writing I had were a veritable jitter, owing to the two full cafetiéres of coffee I gleefully consumed, now and again walking from room to room, just because I could.
But there are downsides. Something I’m rediscovering is the passing of time, that feeling of looking at the clock and being surprised that only half an hour has trudged by. Much like my work in New Look, my patience slowly being ground down by the same ten songs on the shop CD, or when I worked for Catering Services at University, spending twenty minutes reorganising the sugar packets to have something to do. Worst of all, the envelope stuffing factory, where I times myself to see how quickly I could pick up four different inserts, put them in an envelope and seal it with a moist sponge. Over, and over, again. For most people, making the day go by is quite a natural phenomenon, something I haven’t had to deal with for a very long time. At least I’m doing it by thinking of a good metaphor, rather than filling people’s letterboxes with junk.
With all of this in mind, I was intrigued to read And Then We Came To The End. Partly for its unusual narrative voice (it’s all written in first person plural – ‘we’) but also because it’s set almost exclusively in the offices of an advertising firm, following the mundane activities of multiple members of staff through their monotonous days, amid concerns that people are being laid off. Surely, that wouldn’t be an interesting read.
What’s clever about this book is that it takes you through the experience of actually working with these people. It does it so well that when, towards the end of the book, when someone is thinking back on a person that they used to work with, you too are mulling over who exactly they were, the name is familiar, but you can’t place them. I don’t think it would be possible to capture the sense of belonging so well without the ‘we’ that is used so often. It also annoys the hell out of you. Sharing in their ridiculous workspace (and for most of this rather large novel we are in this very small space) you get caught up in the gossip, the chat, the idle banter and the ridiculous rumours of a workplace. The free-flowing prose and free indirect discourse really captures the rambling nature of wasting time in at desks and trying to justify your existence, or why you’re hanging out by the coffee machine rather than doing any actual real work. Having read this book, I feel I understand a little better the nuances of working with a small group of people on the same floor, and pitying and sympathising with them. He manages to create some incredibly empathetic characters that, although we don’t actually like them very much, are nonetheless very compelling. What is also very clever is the way he pits us against certain characters, only to reveal something about them later which makes us feel bad about judging them previously. This makes the reading experience very much mirror the experience of living through their lives, which is skilfully handled. It’s impressive the way he manages to create such nuanced characters, effectively through gossip and hearsay.
And it’s funny. It’s always difficult to write on the front of a book ‘this is funny,’ or to have the person that recommended it to you tell you how funny they thought it was. It instantly places you on the defensive, reading it and thinking, ‘well come on then, I don’t think it was that funny,’ rather than taking it at face value, as you would if you didn’t have this predisposed idea about it. But it’s still funny. In a sort of cringy, The Office sort of way, where you recognise people and situations and feel embarrassed for them, rather than a genuine chuckle.
The section that really stood out for me was towards the end, where we suddenly switched voices. I think this was partly because we had been in a collective voice for so long, which meant that hearing a distinctive voice was suddenly unusual and interesting. Also, we were suddenly in the eyes of the fabled boss, who has been mythologised throughout the rest of the book. In a nice little twist, this narrative is later repeated from another character, which further removes us from an idea of truth and verisimilitude. Which is another incredibly clever part of this book. Because the entire novel is essentially gossip, even at the end it is not entirely clear how much of it actually happened. But it was a great ride. An immersive, enjoyable and cleverly constructed novel. But still, I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out my own office employment any time soon.