What do we do with the choices we’re given? This is what lies at the heart of Joshua Ferris’s compilation of short stories, The Dinner Party, where the anxieties of his characters collide with the aftermath of their decisions. From the unsettlingly euphoric to the desperately sad, Ferris tosses his reader slices of everyday life in which the frailty and folly of humans in all their self-conscious best and worst is on display. We become ‘a public audience to a stranger’s despair’, as he writes in The Stepchild, where the main character routinely abandons his wife for fear that she has left him. But what better place to be a voyeur, where we can safely judge while we distance ourselves from thoughts and actions that might just cut a little too close to the bone.
The title story, The Dinner Party, opens the book on a claustrophobic close-up in a married couple’s tiny kitchen, as she prepares for the party and he bad-mouths her friends and drinks wine. Marital discord features strongly throughout the collection, and in general the men do not come off lightly. In A Night Out, on the way to his mid-afternoon affair, the protagonist concedes, ‘a man is a monster’. And yet it is the self-awareness of these flawed husbands that draws the reader in – if not in sympathy, at least in recognition of their admitted faults. Likewise, the women are fully three–dimensional. Cracks appear in the stoic calm that the wife in The Dinner Party maintains in the face of her dreadful husband. The Breeze writes and re-writes the action of one spring New York evening, just as its unsatisfied protagonist is forever is trying to create the perfect moment from an endless amount of choices, while knowing it to be out of reach.
Ferris places most of these stories in the urban backdrop of New York, and it works well as a setting for his characters to drape their modern woes. Some of his most evocative descriptions, however, take place away from the more familiar. In swampy Florida, The Valetudinarian takes us to ‘a perfectly manicured oasis of hurricane-proof Spanish colonials, manatee mailboxes, and geriatric promiscuity’. A stand-out story for its central character’s deliriously joyful epiphany after suffering a heart attack as a result of having sex with an Eastern-European prostitute, it perfectly evokes the world of lonely retired singles spying through their apartment peepholes and feuding with their equally lonely neighbours.
While these stories probe our motivations – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and cause us to reflect on them, they are also simply a great read. There’s killer dialogue, a range of different voices, and unexpected surprises.
The Dinner Party was published by Viking on 29th June 2017.