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The desk set

Debut novelist fits plenty of anxiety and humor into his office space

Then We Came to the End
By Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown, 387 pp., $23.99

A thousand years from now, if future generations turn to contemporary fiction as a window into the past, they will wind up with a rather skewed portrait of America. People, they might surmise, spent very little time in cars, resolved many disputes with violence, almost never slept with their spouse, and, in spite of pulling in regular incomes, never, ever went to work.

In real life, many of us know all too well, an enormous percentage of our waking life is spent on our phones, in our cars, getting to and from a job that, even if we enjoy it dearly, steals some portion of our humanity from us. To all those workers who share this feeling, Joshua Ferris's debut novel, "Then We Came to the End," is for you.

Set in a Chicago advertising firm on the cusp of the dot-com boom, Ferris's tale is a kind of literary "Office Space," the much-underappreciated film by Mike Judge (which, if you haven't seen, you should go rent now). Narrated in the first-person plural, Ferris's tale begins as a satiric manifesto for the overpaid but understimulated white - collar worker.

"We had visceral, rich memories of dull , interminable hours," he writes. "Some of us liked one restaurant in particular while others spread out across the city, sampling and reviewing. We were foxes and hedgehogs that way."

There is indeed a horde mentality to office life, and Ferris captures it well. Weak co - workers are mercilessly ridiculed; sophomoric pranks knock the legs out from beneath the self-important. A sushi roll winds up behind one man's desk, where it ferments for weeks; another colleague's e-mail account is hijacked to send bizarre messages to the entire company that read "My name is Shaw-NEE! You are captured, Ha! I poopie I poopie I poopie."

Ferris, it is not hard to guess, spent a few years of his 20s working in one such firm, and in low moments this book feels like a dumping ground for all his notes taken. He riffs on the tyranny of office managers, the poignancy of coffee mugs, and the mindless repetition of lunch hour; he notes how the creeper vine of cynicism nearly chokes the camaraderie out of a group, until a big project comes in with a tight deadline and everyone pulls together to complete it on time.

In "Then We Came to the End," this sort of project is called a "fire drill." It used to be just an occasional mode of working, but, with profits shrinking and clients drying up, it becomes a round-the-clock way of life. As Ferris's tale progresses, his cast has less work to do but more to worry about -- so they huddle together in uncomfortable proximity, their anxiety springing off them like water from a busted sprinkler head.

Anxiety, like office life, is a daily fact of American living, but it presents challenges for a story teller. How hard do you tweak it? Do you use it to turn some characters wild, or keep it at a low, sonorous hum, as in Ann Beattie 's work? Ferris wisely knows there is only so much ha-ha and hee-hee to squeeze for amusing cruelty, so, as the bodies begin to pile up and the lay off ax chops faster, the humor is increasingly mediated by moments of touching solidarity.

Several characters face actual, heartbreaking loss. One man's wife has left him and moved to Phoenix. Another woman's daughter was abducted from her home and murdered. ("You have never seen someone weep until you have witnessed a mother at the funeral of her murdered child.") A steely, remote boss is rumored to have breast cancer -- this just as the team gears up for a pro bono breast cancer awareness campaign.

It is worth pointing out that Ferris's novel is not the first to take office life as its sole backdrop. A close reader will recognize elements (not to mention a title) borrowed from Don DeLillo's "Americana," George Saunders's "Pastoralia," and Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs." But this leavening of humor with loss sets this narrative apart in its portrait of the necessary angel of enforced proximity.

Try as they might, Ferris's cast members lose their grip on their irony and eventually cave in to fear. Halfway into the novel, one of the characters runs off to the store to buy some books on breast cancer and brings them back . "Oh, this stuff is just way too emotional," she says to a co - worker. "Oh, I have to stop reading it." But she continues with the book because it's telling her something profound, a truth that practically caroms out of "Then We Came to the End": Our jobs bother us because, deep down inside, they remind us that all things -- even the essential ones -- come to an end.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.