Guilty Men and Wronged Wives

Joshua Ferris, The Dinner Party

Viking, 256pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780241297032

reviewed by Josie Mitchell

Joshua Ferris, author of three funny, anxious novels about metropolitan loneliness, has released his first book of short stories, The Dinner Party. The collection features a cast of thwarted, pathological men struggling with the addictions and alienations of modern-day America.

The 11 stories, published over a decade (mostly in the New Yorker), are scooped up here into one book. One of the fears for novelists like Ferris must be that their shorter work, massed together, becomes monotonous, revealing penchants for certain phrases, characters, dilemmas. For example, two stories in The Dinner Party feature an almost identical scene: in both a couple is mid-argument, the husband sheepish, the wife livid. In both, knife in hand, she’s engrossed in chopping vegetables for dinner while he observes her, shamefaced. Our attention is on the knife. One woman slides ‘her finger along the blade to free the clinging onion;’ the other runs ‘her finger down the length of the blade, sliding the garlic into the hot oil.’ Both moments are taut with suppressed domestic violence – the alcohol in the air, the doomed vegetables, the blade. No wonder Ferris used it twice.

This déjà vu triggers an ambivalence I feel towards Ferris’s collection. Yes, these are potent scenes. Ferris devises his interactions as tight spatial equations, aware of the significance of bodies in space. In ‘The Dinner Party’ a man moves across the bedroom to comfort his sobbing wife, who, angry and resistant, ‘went limp as if he were not holding her, as if he were not in the room with her.’ Elsewhere, a corporate executive working late into the night startles a cleaning lady, who averts her eyes noting that he ‘commands a presence in this space . . . more vital in the hierarchy than her own.’ Those who inhabit these charged atmospheres are closely attuned to the nuances of social relations.

Still, consumed in one go his male protagonists and their worlds feel rather homogenous. The narrator of ‘The Stepchild,’ a TV star in crisis, believes he’s been abandoned by his wife. After seducing a married female acquaintance, he returns home to find his wife Naomi cooking dinner – she hasn’t left him; his paranoia has turned her Sunday amble into imminent divorce. ‘Who was it this time?’ Naomi asks wearily. In ‘A Night Out’ a man, his affair uncovered, is also confronted by his wife. Less acquiescent, she walks away, leaving him to attend their dinner plans with her parents alone. Inevitably, the waitress serving them turns out to be (you’ll never guess) the mistress, who, clocking the deception, chases him down the street. In ‘Fragments’ a man receives a pocket-call from his partner. He overhears her muted conversation with an unknown man: ‘. . . just wish. . . could spend the night. . .’ Returning home, he shouts at strangers in the street, offering up her belongings to passers-by. A man cheats on his wife; a man is perhaps cheated on by his wife; a man, fearing his wife has abandoned him, cheats on his wife. There are a lot of guilty men and wronged wives in this book.

Tom McCarthy, introducing his collection of nonfiction writing Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017), expresses an interest in the afterlives of his articles. Like jellyfish, ‘they float around for a while, catching and refracting various types of light.’ They can fall apart or clump together into a mass. If they do clump together, McCarthy wonders, does the writing have intent en masse? If the articles, published over, say, a decade, weren’t written with an overall plan, could one be attached to them retrospectively? ‘The only way of beginning to answer these questions,’ he concludes, ‘is to scoop these essays up and float them out again, as one big cluster.’

Ferris’s stories, published between 2008 and 2016, gain new meaning as a whole. Read individually, each is a mordant sketch of male dysfunction and human pain. All together, however, the running theme of men doing awful things to women becomes quite exasperating. I know we’re not meant to like Ferris’s men, but we are encouraged to feel for them. These men are harmed, unhappy people, who – we learn in backstory asides – cannot help behaving the way they do; they have been hurt. ‘I could not escape a living history of me doing the most horrible things. Pressing myself on women. Telling bald-faced lies. Cheating. Stealing pills from friends’ cabinets. Fucking their wives,’ says one of the many self-consciously shitty narrators. Men driven mad by ‘the vague conviction that other people are happier and getting more out of life.’ Their childhoods, we learn, were difficult.

I found myself, after reading this book, nostalgic for Ferris’s debut novel. Then We Came to the End opened with equal parts earnestness and cynicism: ‘We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise.’ Narrated by a Greek chorus of advertising employees, the book is part office inanity (gossip in office cubicles, desk errata), part capitalist tragedy (consumerist despair, spreadsheet existentialism). Perhaps the chorus prevented Ferris from getting bogged down in the male-female stereotypes he seems so eager to propagate these days. The writing moves effortlessly from the micro-frustrations of the daily grind to the macro-dilemmas of neoliberalism. There’s space for this in a novel. Limited to short fiction, Ferris stays encumbered by the battles of coupledom.

In his acknowledgements, Ferris makes sure to distinguish between himself and his ‘(awful, male) characters,’ reassuring us that he is nothing like the men he makes. He speaks of a certain squeamishness in putting these various objectifiers into the world. Nevertheless, his action plan is to write ‘characters more male and awful still.’ It’s a strange ambition. As McCarthy suggests, the meaning that attaches itself to your work may not be within your control or your awareness, and here, Ferris’s seeming blindness to the trite gender stereotypes he propagates is aggravating. Wives and husbands, adulterers and mistresses, old men and prostitutes: all the women are sex objects and all the men are jerks, and some of us are bored.