Lyricism is Suspect

One of my favorite group emails ever was from a graduate student who informed us that “the Phallus is suspect.” From then on I couldn’t stop picturing him as a variant of Inspector Clouseau, sniffing around anything remotely ‘phallocentric’; sidling up to imply accusations of below-board, patriarchal, behavior; scribbling paranoid notes in small, inscrutable, handwriting. To be completely frank, that grad student was a witless boob. Recently I discovered that I, too, possess an inner boob. You see, upon reading Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to The End, I’ve come to realize I am suspicious of lyricism.

In the most technical sense, lyricism is an escape. It’s a way of avoiding scorchingly uncomfortable truths about ourselves by retreating to the self-satisfaction of an apt turn of phrase. Which is not to say that Ferris’ novel about a post-internet bubble, Chicago, advertising firm’s office culture is devoid of the kind of realism that hits home. The names of his characters are so perfectly chosen that they have taken on almost allegorical significance. We have, for example, Tom Mota, the man-child; Karen Woo, suck up; Marcia Dwyer, office bitch; Genevieve Latsko-Devine, group conscience. As one of my bosses liked to pontificate, “professional people use first and last names” (professional people also return phone calls and emails within 24 hours, ‘or else‘). A hallmark of great realism is that these insignificant portraits of office-workers stewing in anomie become iconic for the reader. Karen Woo is now as significant a name at first glance as a character named Pride, Envy or Virtue in a Medieval Mystery Play.

This is a novel about gossip and non-confrontation, where Ferris beautifully captures the bitchy corporate short-hand used in lieu of direct conversation. Take the example of Joe Pope and Tom Mota’s evolving conflict. Joe Pope is the blank face of impersonal authority in the office who stands up to Tom Mota’s spouting of Emerson quotations and ongoing nervous breakdowns. It is a classic office-place confrontation. Instead of doing what he wants and directly calling Joe Pope a fag after his lecture on political correctness, Tom Mota indirectly stirs the pot by allowing himself to be overheard saying “Hank Neary’s gay.” A concerned Joe Pope falls for it and pontificates on the importance of knowing the difference between “right talk” and “wrong talk.” Pope threatens that “wrong talk can be construed as slander.” Note the piety of the Human Resources type as if he has suddenly been promoted into a Human Rights advocate. Of course, Joe Pope’s talk of “right and wrong” strikes Tom Mota as outrageous as it does the reader.

“Slander?” said Tom. “Whoa, slander — Joe, that’s an expensive word, slander? Do we need to involve lawyers? I have lawyers, Joe. I have so many fucking lawyers it would be no problem putting them to work on this one.”
“Tom,” said Joe. “Your anger.”
… “What the fuck does that mean,” said Tom, “‘Your anger’? Is that what you just said, ‘Your anger’?” Joe didn’t reply. “What the fuck does it mean, ‘Your anger’?”

Ferris’ narrator shows that “we” — meaning the collective office staff, with the exception of Tom Mota, but to some extent even including him as well — all understand what ‘your anger’ means. “We suffered from the same anger from time to time.” Resentments boil and linger; empathy sours. Billy Reiser comes in with a broken leg, and because he only broke it playing softball and not in a sufficiently screwball, horrific, or tragic way, office resentment begins to stick to his leg. Co-workers mock him as a cripple when the healing process runs into complications. They cringe when they hear his crutches making their way down the corridor. Cynicism and reflexive irony can adhere to just about anything; it is powered by being inappropriate. Office workers are the most severe critics of any narrative that doesn’t adhere to the primary expectation of cubiclism–stories must distract from work.

With the exception of a middle chapter written in the third person, “we” is the novel’s narrative perspective. Why should it matter whose perspective a novel about collective office misery is written from, whether it be Bennie Shassberger, Jim Jackers, Marcie Dwyer or Chris Yop? It’s the story of their collective experience living under a regime of involuntary mechanisms — a general and understandable tightening of the belt. Sometimes the effect of the first person plural is lovely, such as those passages when Ferris describes what “we” did when coming into the office in the morning. A picture emerges of a generation of over-paid workers sitting in separate offices as they experience the same anxiety while checking identical email memos; engaged in equally meaningless rituals to stave off the fear of being viewed as extraneous by the firm’s partners — coming together in a totality of waste, padding resumes and killing time. Competitiveness is a shared drive for singularity.

Over the course of the novel, however, these moments of clarity are lost to the rush of the plot and to a growing circumspection as the narrator becomes increasingly nostalgic about the group’s time together. Over time, something else also clarifies: these people deserve to get laid off. Not because they waste time. They are incompetent; copywriter, Chris Yop, cannot proof-read his resume after being let go; they can’t put an ad together to save their lives. When given the project of coming up with an ad that’s humorous to a person with breast cancer (a clear cry for help from their boss, Lynn Mason), no one but the office clown, Jim Jackers, can come up with anything remotely humorous. Jim succeeds because he is closer to the truth of American advertising than any of the others — he gets that human psychology is, by nature, crass and at his level. And as for Lynn’s condition, they force an intervention less out of concern for her and more out of the sheer compulsion of office gossip. Karen Woo even calls the hospital, pretending to be Lynn wanting to know if she had written down the wrong date for her mastectomy and accidentally missed the surgery — Karen Woo is just so fucking brutal and tacky. The narratorial “we” becomes for each and every one of them another way of referring to “me.” It’s their way of collectively annihilating one another. Lynn, not wanting “them” to win, refuses to be treated for her breast cancer until too late. She becomes “our” willing sacrifice. After all, she wouldn’t have made partner in the first place if she weren’t more passive aggressive than the rest of the pack.

In the end, years later, they come together one last night for a reading from ‘gay’ Hank Neary’s novel at the University of Chicago Bookstore. Absorbed in their own problems and in the nostalgia of being together once again, all but one of them fails to notice that Neary’s novel is about them, about Lynn’s alienation and, finally, her death as well as their selfishness.

So dig it, I recommend this book. Go read it. It’s a great piece of Management Gothicism that can look past and mock its own lyricism.

2 Responses to “Lyricism is Suspect”

  1. Luches Says:

    Yes, but what style isn’t an escape–I mean the whole point of having a style is to smooth out the incommensurate and to create conventional distinctions between realism and fantasy on behalf of making *something* bearable. See Dennis Cooper’s *The Sluts* for example. Realism–here, naturalism– is also an escape–not from lyricism, but, in this case, from from the dedramatised ordinary. There must be writers who interfere with style in order not to make the aesthetic a utopian distraction from what’s confusing, incoherent, threatening: Philip Roth in *American Pastoral*, Phoebe Gloekner in *Diary of a Teenage Girl*, anything by Michelle Tea, David Foster Wallace; then also there are Dave Eggers and early Charles Johnson, who use the style they use to demonstrate its failure to achieve utopian displacements…

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    I’d never thought that way about Eggers and Wallace. In fact, I think it was the Eggers of the world who have been bugging me — the kind of writers who say stupid or banal things beautifully. For me, Ferris was a great combination of someone who can be incredibly funny, confrontational and invigorating in his writing. Thanks for commenting luches. I hope you’ll be a regular.

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