How Much Juice Can Joshua Ferris Squeeze Out of Male Ugliness?

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Joshua Ferris achieved something of a pop-lit crossover hit ten years ago with his first novel, Then We Came to the End. The title was borrowed from the opening line of Don DeLillo’s first book, Americana, and like the first half of that book it was a comedy about life in a corporate office — a Chicago advertising firm where DeLillo had a New York TV network. As with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, the narration was first-person plural, a device used to channel the dwindling collective of cubicle-bound bottom-feeders through successive massacres of downsizing. In The New York Times Book Review, James Poniewozik, then TV critic for Time, greeted it warmly with a comparison to The Office (American and British versions). There were both screen-ready set pieces — an office attack by a disgruntled laid-off co-worker armed with a paintball rifle — and characters perhaps a little too easy to sympathize with: The workaholic boss, who’s sacrificed her youth to get to the executive rung on the corporate ladder, is finally ready to start living a little when she learns she’s been diagnosed with cancer. With its lightly worn blend of hard-to-miss recent influences, its lively assemblage of familiar tropes, and its oddly romantic vision of corporate life — usually the object of acid satire in American fiction, not gauzy slapstick elegy — the novel was nominated for a National Book Award, and in 2010 Ferris was named to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list. A film adaptation hasn’t yet passed the development stage.

Ferris’s next two novels were high-concept affairs. In The Unnamed (2010), a Manhattan lawyer is afflicted by a mania that causes him to walk long distances uncontrollably. The compulsion ruins his career and tears him away from his family when he embarks on a journey across an America that seems to consist entirely of highways, strip malls, and chain eateries. Ludicrous in its premise and listless in its execution, the novel is a travesty — train wrecks are at least interesting to watch — or in the Times Janet Maslin’s phrase, “a baffling, downbeat aberration.” Unlike me, she was among the admirers of Ferris’s third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour — the story of a horny dentist who falls victim to identity theft and is drawn into a convoluted plot that may reveal him to be one of the Ulms, a sect Ferris tells us is descended from ancient inhabitants of Israel and historic enemies of the Jews. The judges of the first Booker Prize open to Americans admired it, too, putting it on the shortlist in 2014.

The Dinner Party and Other Stories, Ferris’s new book, collects pieces from across his decade of activity, including a chunklet about one of the characters from Then We Came to the End. On their own — many of them appeared in The New Yorker — some of these stories could be read as provocations: Ferris sketches a male anti-hero and serves him his comeuppance. Taken together, they’re repetitive and point up the author’s weaknesses. In the acknowledgments, Ferris thanks his wife and his agent “who never make the mistake of confusing the author for his (awful, male) characters, and who in turn embolden the author to make those characters more male and awful still.” Awful is the right word for these men. Too often it’s also the only word for them.

The merits of likability in literary characters was a few years ago a matter of controversy, after the novelist Claire Messud was taken to task by a Publishers Weekly interviewer for the noxiousness of Nora, the protagonist of her 2013 novel, The Woman Upstairs. “I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down,” Donald Antrim remarked in a New Yorker online forum on the subject. The converse is true, too: Put a one-dimensional jerk at the center of a story and it dies on the page. The Dinner Party is a parade of such jerks who march by one by one, usually onto a punishment neatly arranged to show just how bad their author knows them to be. Occasionally he spares them, a testament to the mercies of their virtuous and similarly one-dimensional wives.

As usual, Ferris deals in types. There’s the Domineering Husband, the Infantilized Widower, the Sad Alcoholic, the Vulgar Tourist, the Thoughtless Workaholic, the Emasculated Bridegroom, the Adulterous Banker, the Adulterous Actor, etc. The Domineering Husband and his Long-Suffering Wife are stood up for dinner by another couple, and he goes over to their apartment to get to the bottom of it; there a party is in progress, and the hostess, his wife’s oldest friend, tells him, “I think Amy made a terrible mistake marrying you.” The reader agrees. The Infantilized Widower has a heart attack when he takes Viagra with a prostitute who leaves him for dead. When he mistakes her for the woman who saved his life (actually his needy neighbor) and tries to rescue her from pursuing cops, the reader recognizes the ending — a flashback to a Little League memory — as lifted from Tobias Wolff’s famous story “Bullet in the Brain.” The Sad Alcoholic, an aspiring TV writer, goes to an industry party that makes him nervous enough to relapse. When the party’s over, he falls asleep by the pool smoking, lights himself on fire, jumps in the pool to put himself out, and drowns. The reader doesn’t grieve — at least the story’s over.

The stories in The Dinner Party that don’t take a preposterous turn tend instead to pile on the clichés. This might work if the clichés were ironized or if the characters had inner lives, but the stock scenarios are deployed in earnest, and inside the characters’ heads we find bundles of pat insecurities. Infidelity is Ferris’s most superficial theme: He seems to have taken his ideas about it from bad television. When the Jealous Wife spots a colleague of the Adulterous Banker on the street, she ditches him to chase her — a case of mistaken identity. And when the Adulterous Banker joins his mother-in-law and father-in-law for dinner on the Upper West Side, the waitress turns out to be the young woman he’s been cheating with. She’s jilted, and she outs him. The Jealous Wife — “She had wanted to play by the rules. Hadn’t she?” — decides to take revenge by sleeping with a stranger at a bar. They have nowhere to go but an empty Brooklyn lot. An odd choice, as there are plenty of reasonably priced hotels in the borough, but as usual imagination is lacking.

With one exception, Ferris’s menagerie of assholes shouldn’t be confused with that other familiar character from recent American fiction, the comic man-child loser. The exception is Joe Pope, a refugee in this collection from the pages of Then We Came to the End. As opposed to the crimes committed by the other men in The Dinner Party, his infractions are misdemeanors. He spends a manic night in the office, leaves ill-advised voice-mails for a female colleague, tries to dismantle her phone, rearranges some furniture. The episode is silly, but he emerges as a figure of pity rather than contempt. He lives in Chicago and is beguiled by what might be going on in its high-rises; Ferris’s New Yorkers are different animals. They’re afraid of the city. They don’t know how to navigate it and are at a loss for what to do with their evenings. Many of them hate the subway. In short, they’re charmless, Which is the worst way to be an asshole. John Cheever is rolling in his grave.

*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

How Much Juice Can One Writer Squeeze Out of Male Ugliness?