Aw­ful men and ab­sent women

The Din­ner Party

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Ni­cole Flat­tery By Joshua Fer­ris Vik­ing, £12.99 Ni­cole Flat­tery’s fic­tion and non­fic­tion has ap­peared in the Sting­ing Fly and the Dublin Re­view and on BBC Ra­dio 4. She is win­ner of the 2017 White Re­view Short Story Prize

What links the men in Joshua Fer­ris’s short-story col­lec­tion The Din­ner Party? They range from a des­per­ate 60-year-old en­coun­ter­ing his first pros­ti­tute via a des­per­ate mid­dle man­ager spend­ing a fran­tic, mis­take-filled evening alone in his of­fice to an as­sort­ment of hus­bands at­tempt­ing to save, or not save, their mar­riages.

To bor­row a tele­vi­sion cliche – and I don’t think Fer­ris will mind, be­cause he deals pri­mar­ily in cliches – ev­ery one of these char­ac­ters strikes me as the sort of man who would sit out­side a woman’s house, long into the night, en­gine run­ning, soft rock blar­ing, ex­ud­ing dan­ger­ous men­ace and pa­thetic de­sire.

The generic woman would peek out from be­hind the cur­tains, try to ig­nore him, then, feel­ing em­bold­ened, ap­proach this car- dwelling, steer­ing-wheel-clench­ing per­son and ask him to be on his way. The man, drink­ing some­thing all-Amer­i­can and smok­ing fu­ri­ously, would re­spond, “I can park where I like. It’s a free coun­try.”

No­body, whether reader or char­ac­ter, is sure if this is a po­lice sit­u­a­tion or a ro­mance. I’ve lifted this scene from Fri­day Night Lights, or my mem­ory of Fri­day Night Lights, or any show where men, through some com­bi­na­tion of co­er­cion and stub­born­ness, get ex­actly what they want. That’s al­lowed – Fer­ris clum­sily ref­er­ences Fri­day Night Lights through­out his story The Pilot.

In The Din­ner Party char­ac­ters leave and get left. Their mar­riages are un­sta­ble and un­happy, gen­er­ally back­dropped by New York, as they cheat and se­duce. They are cre­ative or floun­der­ing in stul­ti­fy­ing jobs but are, some­how, ob­scenely wealthy. They fail end­lessly, on a loop, but it amounts to noth­ing.

In The Breeze, struc­turally the most ad­ven­tur­ous, a cou­ple go through a series of per­mu­ta­tions on an evening out: they go for din­ner, or they don’t; they see a film, or they don’t; they break up, or they don’t. In this mem­o­rable story Fer­ris cap­tures the sense of missed op­por­tu­nity that per­vades mod­ern city life.

In his most lik­able story, More Aban­don (What­ever Hap­pened to Joe Pope?), Fer­ris rein­tro­duces a char­ac­ter from his bril­liant, award-win­ning de­but, Then We Came to the End. He’s back in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory of of­fice pol­i­tics and the re­as­sur­ing te­dium of work, and Pope, as he con­fesses his love to a mar­ried col­league over voice­mail, is hap­less and lonely rather than aw­ful.

Sadly, most of these char­ac­ters are aw­ful. If you try to for­get they will re­mind you. They would wear their aw­ful­ness as a badge of hon­our, if hon­our were some­thing they were in­ter­ested in. They de­light in it. They say things like, “Half of my life I spent as a mon­ster,” and, “Me, I never loved any­one but my­self.”

In the ti­tle story a man dis­cov­ers that all his wife’s friends dis­like him and con­sider their union a mis­take. After re­turn­ing home from a party he was not in­vited to, his wife, who is leav­ing him, asks, “Is it re­ally pos­si­ble you care about no one but your­self?” He has no an­swer. Fine. Be aw­ful. It’s a free coun­try, after all. Only it un­der­mines the dra­matic ten­sion if that’s ev­ery char­ac­ter’s dom­i­nant trait. And isn’t it bor­ing?

Like hav­ing an ar­gu­ment with some­one who keeps shrug­ging at your re­sponses, what is most frus­trat­ing is Fer­ris’s re­fusal to try. Lack­ing the sharp in­sight of David Sza­lay, or the comic charm of Don­ald Antrim, this isn’t mas­culin­ity in cri­sis. Fer­ris’s cre­ations aren’t ques­tion­ing how to be good men in a world that re­wards bad be­hav­iour: they are quite con­tent to ha­rass the wait­ress.

Halfway through this book, like be­ing trapped in a dam­ag­ing re­la­tion­ship, I couldn’t trust my opin­ion any more. Was it funny? It might have been. Was I the prob­lem? Sure. Why not? Then I re­alised why this was: this book is not for me. Through­out it women func­tion as ob­jects – not even par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing ones. As Joe Pope, the most self-aware of the char­ac­ters, as­tutely says about his beloved Genevieve, “He’s not even sure the torch he car­ries con­cerns her any­more. It’s a fix­a­tion, now an ob­ses­sion.”

The women are con­stantly out of view, van­ish­ing hys­ter­i­cally into the dark of sub­way sta­tions. They dis­ap­pear for long stretches and come back and say lines like, “Why do I have this life?”

I won­dered where they went. I hope, wher­ever they were, they were hav­ing a bet­ter time than I was. Why do they have these lives? I wish I knew.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.