The season finale of Mad Men. It is Thanksgiving 1968 and the year has been pivotal. MLK, Bobby Kennedy assassinated, New York torn apart by crime, Nixon elected and wave after wave of anti-war sentiment, anger, horror and hate sizzling from the streets and screens. Don Draper shakingly (and shockingly) confronts and confesses some very private details of his life in the context of an ad pitch and we are left to wonder, over the next several months, what is to become of America’s favorite fictional alcoholic, serial adulterer.
Joshua Ferris’ much-lauded ad agency exploration entitled And Then We Came to the End explores much of the same territory. The year is “the new century.” Creative Director Lynn Mason combats international economic crises, ad revenue cuts and rising costs with lay-offs. Each member of the staff waits for his or her turn gossiping about one another, fighting over office chairs, speculating about Lynn Mason’s upcoming surgery and in one united the meantime fights irrelevance by trying to create the best pitch for Lynn’s assignment: raise awareness of a fundraiser sponsored by the Alliance Against Breast Cancer to boost donations across the country. The elephant in the room: Is Lynn making this all up because she herself has breast cancer and is looking for a cure through her ad agency?
And similarly, doesn’t Don Draper have his own elephants to deal with?
And Then We Came to the End, much like Mad Men, is peopled by odd, angry, eccentric and oddly-sociopathic characters. And much like Mad Men, the narrative is often unintelligible and seems to require a reader with an inside knowledge of characters that is not on the page. This is what the reviewers appear to love about And Then We Came to the End. It is written in first person plural. Either the narrator is everyone or no one at all.
But as much as I love Mad Men, I detested MOST of And Then We Came to the End. The book felt like an exercise in “I’m so much smarter and funnier than you that you can’t even understand how much smarter and funnier I am.” In a scene where the group is trying to discern what is happening, the plural narrator attempts an explanation of the group think evident throughout the book:
“There could very well be a fund-raiser. We just didn’t think Lynn had donated our time to it. We didn’t think there was a committee chair pestering her. In fact, crazy as it sounded, we thought there was no client at all — unless that client was Lynn Mason herself.”
Other examples appear on nearly every page: “we immediately tried to distance ourselves from the theory;” “things we wanted to say, but we lacked the courage;” “it was a mystery to us how he could be such a confident and lively raconteur.”
There is a mid-section of the book, some 50 pages, where Lynn confronts the loss of a relationship, a health crisis, the potential failure of her business and does so eloquently and with such humanity that it makes me almost want to read that part again. If you read it, you might just want to begin at page 196 and read through 230.
If not, we expect that we will ask at the end of And Then We Came to the End, why we read this book and what it was really trying to say or if it meant to tell us anything at all? Perhaps Joshua Ferris was just having a bit of fun with us, challenging us to read his inside jokes and penetrate his group think, telling us that what goes up, doesn’t necessarily come down in the same way Don Draper so often has fun manipulating the clients, co-workers and women around him. All the same, we much prefer Don to Mr. Ferris’ circulating, never-ending wheel.
Book Club Menu
Should you choose this book for Book Club, you should know that the majority of the time the office staff group in And Then We Came to the End appears to eat out of vending machines. Nevertheless, there is some mention of Chinese food. And given that it’s set in Chicago, you could definitely serve pizza.
If I were hosting though, I think I’d have to serve circus food. And to know why, you will just have to read the book. (Sorry)