Awful men and absent women
The Dinner Party
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.