Joshua Ferris is quite the wunderkind isn’t he? A terrific first novel in the shape of And Then We Came to the End, a sturdy but different kind of follow up in the shape of The Unnamed and then To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, his Booker Prize nominated book, which garlanded all kinds of praise and came to feel like the moment Joshua Ferris crossed over from promising young Turk into established literary figurehead. The Dinner Party, a collection of short stories written over the course of the last 20 years, feels, then, less like a bold new step in an as yet unpredictable direction and more something of a pause, as if Ferris knows that it’s important to keep product out there. Many of these stories have been published previously (and it should be said in slightly different forms, because Ferris is nothing if not a tinkerer – on a recent NY Times podcast he said that he could imagine looking at these stories again in 20 years and tinkering some more), for the most part in the New Yorker, and were you to be asked to define what constitutes a New Yorker story exactly… well, you could do worse than point them in the direction of The Dinner Party.
Over half of the 11 stories contained herein are set in New York, and if a story is set in New York you can guarantee it features a couple on the downward spiral. The title story which opens the book concerns a couple who are waiting on guests to appear – the guy is a smart ass and the woman has, we sense, had just about enough. When the guests fail to appear, his eyes are opened to the parlous state of his relationship:
“Her arms dropped to her side and she went limp. She cried as if he were not holding her, as if he were not in the room with her, as if he were not in the world at all.”
‘A Night Out’ centres on Tom and Sophie, a couple in mid-spat on their way to dinner with Sophie’s mum and dad. Tom has had an affair, or affairs, and Sophie has had just about enough. She follows a woman she wrongly thinks is one of the women Tom cheated on her with, questioning her own fidelity, which seems naïve in the face of the gross infidelities she comes to see about her wherever she is. Tom (and this could be described as a leitmotif of the book) remains something of a dick throughout. ‘The Breeze’ (arguably the most audacious story here, in terms of its structure, but also, curiously – or perhaps not curiously at all – one of the hardest to like) concerns Sarah and Jay and the many possible nights they could have in a city (Ferris is to be commended for letting his readers just work things out – we don’t like to be spoonfed). This time around, Sarah, a decidedly hard to please lady for the most part, fights against the predictability of a long-term relationship and Jay, poor put upon Jay, tries his best, even if his best (we all agree) is somewhat sub par (“He was just a man who wanted to see a movie”). ‘Fragments’ largely resides with one half of a couple who suspects his workaholic wife is playing away. The fragments of the title are the bits and pieces of conversations overheard all over the city. Our narrator spirals largely alone until it all gets too much and he cries his lonely horror, like Howard Beale in Network, from his apartment window. ‘The Stepchild’ concerns a famous actor, Nick, whose marriage is – you got it – spiralling to its close, or so we are told, who comforts himself in the apartment and then the arms of a beautiful, if harried, stranger. Nick, we come to learn, is a person who does this from time to time.
Not all of the stories in The Dinner Party concern failing relationships, however, and those that do not stand out all the more brightly for having other stories to tell. ‘The Valetudinarian’, for example, is Ferris’ Floridian retelling of Mighty Aphrodite and much fun it is too. ‘Life in the Heart of the Dead’ (our personal favourite in the book) concerns a somewhat shallow and vapid young man as he makes his way about the city of Prague (it recalled Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut, Everything is Illuminated, but we won’t hold that against it). ‘The Pilot’ tells the story of another (albeit slightly fraught) vapid and shallow young man as he aims for his big break at an LA party he can’t quite decide if he was really invited to. ‘More abandon (Or whatever happened to Joe Pope?)’, an appealing echo of Ferris’ debut, marries the most explicit comedy to the most explicit yearning heartbreak to dazzling effect. And ‘Ghost Town Choir’ and ‘A Fair Price’ – the two stories most outside of Ferris’ suburban comfort zone (and the stories we’d wager are the oldest in the book) – tell the story of a young boy’s attempts to reconcile an unwilling couple and a pair of men thrown unwillingly together to clear some stuff out of storage.
What you take away from the book is that this reads like Ferris’ take on David Foster Wallace’s infinitely superior Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; the men here are, for the most part, not brave enough to be entirely hideous. They are callous idiots, cruel chumps, thoughtless self-serving dick swingers. Even in the midst of some terrific writing (‘The Breeze’ is a good example of what we’re talking about, the kind of short story Ferris could pop on a resume:
“… this reminder, this windfall. As thrilling as a first kiss. This was her one and only life! It would require something of her to be equal to this day, she had thought at that moment in the brig, and now, looking at herself in the mirror of the ladies’ room, scrutinising her eyes – already hungover, it seemed – she had, through a series of poor choices, squandered the night drinking and failed.”),
you long for a little more light and shade. But Ferris is drawn back again and again, Beckett’s proverbial dog chained to its vomit, to these disappointing men. But even here there are times when his gaze scathes and the words almost bubble off the page like burnt paint:
“I was no innocent. I was a scourge, a blight, a roving maw. I was a maniac. Fuck my fellow man. I hated him the minute he got in my way. Fuck progress if it meant nothing to me personally. I was a terrible burden and an awful premise, and then I was put into practice, to stain Cleveland and terrorise its citizens.”
No wonder Ferris feels the need to distance himself in the acknowledgements (“never make the mistake of confusing the author for his (awful, male) characters”). Awful Males, we sense, could have been a better, more honest, title to the collection.
Any Cop?: The Dinner Party does Ferris no harm – and there is much here to applaud – even if, should we decide to be picky, greater light and shade wouldn’t have hurt (just the odd, decent man might have been enough).