Then We Came to the End vs. Personal Days

Posted on August 10, 2008


When I was in Dublin, I discovered (on the bestseller shelf at Hodges Figgis) the debut novel by Joshua Ferris, an office drone who apparently decided to write a book about his hilarious (but often distressing) workplace experiences. I went home and read the Times review, which was extremely positive. Then I went back and bought and read the book, which is called Then We Came to the End, and it was very good.

But then I got home to the States, and learned about Ed Park (who is a co-editor of The Believer with Middlebury alumna and wife of Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida) and his new debut novel Personal Days, which is also about an office and also supposedly very hilarious, and also highly praised by the Times. So I read this one, too, and it was good, but not as good. And I thought, “Why am I not liking this book as much?” And I figured it out. It’s because I read them both. Park’s novel, which I read second, was doomed to fail at impressing me. Allow me to explain.

In the above review of Personal Days, Mark Sarvas admits that:

Much is likely to be made of the similarities between “Personal Days” and “Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris’s 2007 National Book Award finalist. Both are set in offices convulsed with layoffs… But considering the ubiquity of the work experience in American lives… perhaps the question shouldn’t be why there are two work-related novels right now but why there aren’t many more.

Fair enough. Except that then Sarvas goes on to acknowledge only the one most obvious similarity, the use of the first-person plural to narrate the story. He then has the michigas to ignore the plethora of other duplicated plot elements and narrative techniques, concluding that between these two novels, “the similarity seems superficial.”

Wrong. Perhaps the similarities are slight for Sarvas, who conveniently pretends that the only thing they share is narrative voice. In truth, reading Personal Days after reading the Ferris novel was like reading the Ferris novel again, but a version written by a different novelist attempting to implement slight changes.

Now, there is clearly no way that Ed Park intentionally copied the Ferris novel, and I am not suggesting that. It just isn’t possible, since they were published within a year of each other and I highly doubt that Park could have read the Ferris book, mined it for ideas that he could use, and then fired off a similar book of his own and had it published all in one year. So please keep in mind that (I suppose) the many similarities are just coincidence. And yet, this is what makes the conundrum of their many convergences all the more strange—how in the world could this have happened? These two novels are eerily, ridiculously similar.

First there is the obvious, which Sarvas so astutely points out: the use of the “we” voice to narrate the story. It’s unique, sure, but it’s so unique (see Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City) that for both of these books to have used it is suspect. It works, but because Ferris did it first, it’s difficult not to feel unimpressed when Ed Park does it.

Then, later on in the narrative, both novels break free of the first-person plural for a limited time in order to utilize a different narration that closely follows the actions and feelings of a single character. In Then We Came to the End, this character is the boss, Lynn Mason, who may or may not have cancer. The book abruptly (but it works) abandons the “we” voice and shifts to a third-person omniscient voice to give us a window into Mason’s mind on the evening before her surgery. In the final section of Personal Days, a similar change occurs: we read an email, written naturally in the ‘I’ voice, from Jonah (an employee who is stuck in an elevator and feels he may not make it out) to Pru, a co-worker crush who was fired. Just like the Mason section, it is the first time in the book that we get a truly uncut presentation of one character’s emotions. The worker, whether it’s Mason or Jonah, steps forth from the many and gets shaded-in and presented more fully.

There are other similarities in the social trends that develop among the workers of each book’s office. Nicknames materialize out of thin air and catch hold, like characters in the Ed Park book such as ‘Crease’ (his name is Chris, but he has an old foreign stalker who comes to the office and asks his whereabouts, botching his name) and ‘Grime’ (another joke on pronunciation, this time a British guy named Graham), or clever meshing of names such as when Karen Woo and Chris Yop work on projects together and Ferris’ characters lovingly call them “Yopanwoo” productions.

In addition, each book mentions some sort of clothing article given out to employees by the company, which now has been relegated to their “never wear” piles, or “just as a joke” clothing. In the Ferris, it’s company polo shirts that are given out at an annual barbecue—one guy insists on wearing his to work, often wearing two at a time. Similarly, in Ed Park’s book the items are hats from the company softball games. No one seems willing to be caught dead in one except for a couple guys. The parallel is glaring.

The workers in both books are at once social and reserved. They like to go out for drinks after work, but they don’t meet up on weekends. They go out for lunch together and discuss new places to try, but they rarely meet each other’s spouses or children. Ferris’ characters guiltily head over to McDonald’s when they want a quick lunch, Park’s debate between the “good” and “bad” Starbucks. Brand names like these snack chains, or Soda varieties, are dropped like a snarky in-joke. But we know that people in the working world frequent these establishments, it’s no revelation, and so to hear about it—twice—is cloying.

Both workplaces are run by a mysterious boss figure who is both liked and disliked (but more of the latter). In the Ferris, we have Lynn Mason, who continually acts so authoritative, severe, and composed that it becomes that much more disorienting to her employees when they see her drop the all-business attitude for Joe Pope, or when they imagine her in a personal weakness, falling victim to cancer (which both excites them to gossip and throws them into sympathy). In the Ed Park version, the boss is The Sprout (real name Russell) who hands out absurd motivational phrases that are gifts to his workers who love to ridicule these business-isms. Like Mason, The Sprout shows some weakness when he receives a call from ‘The Californians,’ and his staff likes him more after seeing him humanized and diminished before his own higher-ups.

Both novels include the presence of a second-in-command who is generally resented and mocked by the collective peons of the office. In the Ferris book, we meet Joe Pope, who is a true teacher’s pet of the workplace. Mason loves him, and naturally the others hate him. But when a homophobic insult is graffiti’d on his office wall, his insecurities come out and he gets the balls to confront his co-workers, and just like that, they respect him. The same plot device is used in Personal Days. The character here is Maxine, who is a sexy, dazzling presence in the office (the men love her, the women abhor her) who no one can seem to analyze. It’s unclear how much higher she is than they are, but she works with The Sprout and won’t really socialize. Finally, toward the end, she is fired in front of a small number of the peons, and she breaks down and cries, and here we have Park’s attempt at the Joe Pope moment.

Firing is another subject treated similarly. In both novels, a central character is fired late in the story and is both surprised and reluctant to go (Jenny in Personal Days, Tom Mota in Then We Came to the End). Once the victims of the firings leave, there are significant personal objects that remain, in each book, and serve as reminders for their colleagues that they once were there, living and working among them. In Park’s novel, Jill forgets to take ‘The Jilliad,’ a detailed diary she had packed full of clichéd inspirational quotes. In the Ferris story, Chris Yop’s infamous chair (which is the subject of so much comedy before he leaves) remains, getting bounced around from person to person, until one day, shockingly, they find him back in the office disassembling the thing with the plan of symbolically throwing it into the river.

Finally, the most brazen similarity of all—a small, clever gem of an idea that one would not expect two novelists to come up with on their own—is the detail in each novel that one of the drones is writing his own novel about the office (Ferris and Park’s stabs at a bit of metafiction, I suppose). Ferris gives us Hank Neary, who is writing a “small, angry book about work.” Meanwhile, in Park’s book we have Jonah (it may actually be a different character, I didn’t feel like searching back through the entire book) who says he plans to write a “layoff narrative” of the group’s shared office experiences. Again, I understand that Ed Park did not copy Joshua Ferris, but some of these similarities are astounding.

Even the cover designs for these novels are the same, or similar. The original hardcover run of Then We Came to the End uses a collage of post-it notes, while Ed Park’s paperback cover has the title written on keyboard keys, but the end effect is very similar—sticky notes or keys, they share the same collage/pastiche aesthetic. The intent is to show business and remind you of the workplace. Change the color of the post-its on the Ferris cover to white, and you maybe can’t tell the books apart.

Both of these novels are very good. Each is well-written, well-researched (coming, I’m sure, from true authorial experience), and funny. The Joshua Ferris book is undoubtedly better, with its balance of humor and serious emotion and concern for its characters. Yet I liked reading both. It was just the problem of reading Ed Park’s book (unlucky for him to come after) having just read the Ferris book, that threw me off completely and ruined it for me. Once you’ve read both, it’s very, very difficult to feel that Park’s book is wholly original. And yet I stress again that I know he couldn’t have seen Then We Came to the End in time to steal any ideas for his own book. And so you have my final conclusion: I would recommend either one of these books on their own, but because they do the same thing, and because Josh Ferris does it better, then I would not recommend reading both.

Posted in: DBR Blog