The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Then We Came to the Endby JOSHUA FERRIS
You Don’t Love Me Yetby JONATHAN LETHEM
KEVIN: Here’s the thing about the Ferris book. It shouldn’t work. The whole time I was reading it I was saying to myself, This ‘we’ thing shouldn’t work. Unlike say, Bright Lights, Big City, where the second-person narrator put you disturbingly in the middle of the story, Ferris’s first-person plural narrator actually distances you from it. Anytime he tells a specific anecdote about specific people, he has to revert to a third-person narrator, so the we is now telling you about this thing that happened to them. You are almost always two persons removed from the action. The result is that on nearly every page Ferris is violating the first and most sacred rule of creative writing: Show, don’t tell. Then We Came To The End is largely telling.
Sonofagun if it doesn’t work, though, and really wellmaybe partly because the story is largely about gossip. It’s almost like the distance itself provides humor and perspective. You and I have talked about a similar trick before, about achieving the effect of ironic distance without the ironyIrony in the service of sincerity, I think you once called it. In this particular story about these particular people told by this particular author, it works. It’s a testament to Ferris’s chops that he can pull that off.
I hope a lot of writers don’t rush to copy him, though. Because if you or I tried that, or anyone else, it wouldn’t work. At all.
JOHN: Indeed. If there are any agents reading these commentaries that currently have a pile of manuscripts written in the first-person plural on their desks, please discard them immediately. It is distressing when we fail to recognize a novel for the sui generis piece of work that it is and then try to keep going to that well over and over.
I’m reminded of Lorrie Moore’s 1985 story collection, Self-Help, where a majority of the stories are rendered in the second person. The book is a stunner, and launched a thousand lousy imitators in its wake trying to capture the magic she found in that book with those voices. Even Lorrie Moore doesn’t write second-person stories anymore. With Self-Help, Lorrie Moore simultaneously discovered and then poisoned the well.
I think there’s something similar at work here. Then We Came to the End does indeed have everything stacked against it in terms of the narrative strategy. As you noted, it’s almost all telling, and the incantation of we over and over feels stifling and serves to create an almost overwhelming feeling of ennui that about halfway through the book had me wanting to put it down. But, at the same time, the stifling, the ennuithat is what it’s like to work in an office, it creates an experience where the language and subject matter are perfectly paired for the ultimate effect. Ferris keeps us from choking on our own misery by being frequently funny (irony being very much in the service of sincerity here) and letting some light shine through the gloom, but it’s a tricky mix.
Then We Came to the End is looking unstoppable this year, but let me remind the readers that while Ferris has made the semis with relative ease, winning enthusiastic reviews from the judges in both rounds one and two, there lurks Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, not to mention the Zombie Round lurking beyond, where a slobbering, brain-eating Bolaño or Vida, or even a Lethem rematch could be waiting.