A dentist grapples with online harassment, and his soul, in Joshua Ferris's new novel
Joshua Ferris’s fiction reverses the daily grind—characters wake up at the office and gradually wind their way home, to a place they wouldn’t have recognized at the beginning of the day. His novels are meditations on labor and alienation in contemporary America, stocked with characters for whom life is a disease at once mediated, ameliorated, and worsened by work. Ferris’s debut, Then We Came to the End (2007), about the decline of a loopy bunch of passive employees at an ad agency, is part of a continuum that emerged first in television shows and movies, starting with Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space and continuing into the aughts with the UK and US versions of The Office. But Ferris presents the comic doom and existential stasis—no casual Fridays meets No Exit—with the range a novel affords, complete with interior monologues and shifts of view that a fixed visual frame can’t accommodate. The perils of Then We Came to the End are the tremors of a marketplace before it collapsed, the moment when the economy’s alleged shepherd turned out to be its double agent. A nameless ad agency can’t seem to stay afloat in a world that is branding itself faster than the ad agencies can. Each of Ferris’s characters finds his or her own version of downsizing, literally (in terms of layoffs) or figuratively (by going insane and retreating from the world).
In Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed (2010), the allergy to work manifests as something more particular than workplace ennui. Lawyer Tim Farnsworth ends up leaving the work sector and his stable home life because he suddenly needs,