Friday, August 08, 2008

The New Yorker: "The Dinner Party" by Joshua Ferris

How about that? I actually like the story this week. I don’t know that it’s great, mind you, and I think the end could have been sharper, but for most of the story I was very happy. A young couple—who can’t have children, apparently—are preparing for a dinner party which the husband says is entirely predictable. And she goes along with it, even though she’s increasingly annoyed by his banter, because the couple they are expecting are really her friends, and he’s being pretty cruel about them. It’s clear that he doesn’t like them and that he’s being unreasonable. The dialogue throughout this scene is fantastic and it seemed like it would make a great play. Time goes on and the predictable becomes . . . unpredictable. The expected couple is a no-show and now the hosts have to figure out whether to be pissed or worried. She goes for worried, he goes for pissed. Eventually she goes to bed and he goes over to the guests’ apartment to see if he can find out what happened. And he does, but I won’t spoil that for readers who haven’t seen the story. The scene that results, though, is a classic climax where the real conflict of the story is dealt with head on in a scene that, if anything, could have been messier.

And then there’s the ending, which, as I said, I think could have been sharper. (Stories that end with one of the characters crying always seem like a cop out to me, even if the tears are earned.) Dissenting opinions?


August 11 & 18, 2008: "The Dinner Party" by Joshua Ferris

13 comments:

erin said...

I liked the story a lot, but I agree with you -- the ending is too easy somehow. Any other really strong emotion had the potential to be more interesting.

(What bugged me about the first tear -- unless I'm reading it wrong, he's seeing a single tear in the reflection of a dark window that's partially obscured by blinds? Eyes opening and shutting, sure. One tear? Don't buy it.)

JimT said...

I loved this story, tears and all, Cliff. It is quite possibly my favorite TNY story of 2009, thus far-- maybe even my favorite from any magazine. I ripped it out and put it in my "keepers" box. Joshua Ferris is a new name to me, but I'll be looking for his work from now on.

Clifford Garstang said...

Jim, Ferris made a splash last year with his book, Then We Came to the End. I haven't read it yet, but it was on several Best Of lists last year . . .

Jim said...

Of course this is 2008. I know this is 2008.

Molly said...

One of the best fiction articles all year.... but I agree, the ending could have used a little more OOMPH to it. I couldn't have done any better, though.

Anonymous said...

Agree with absolutely everything you said, Cliff. I wished the wife had actually left at the end, and couldn't figure out why she didn't. That would have felt plausible and carried much more oomph than the squishy "nothing really happens" ending. But I was impressed with this story. It was definitely different.

Pamela

hobart said...

I agree with pretty much everything already said. I loved this story, was laughing out loud while reading it last night, more than I can remember maybe ever having laughed at a NYer story.

Paul Epstein said...

Not much to add, except that I can't agree with Erin's criticism about the single tear. This tear happens several paragraphs after the blinds were mentioned, and there is no reason to assume that the characters haven't moved (or even switched on lights) in the interim. After all, the story doesn't painstakingly describe every motion although some writers would.

Paul Epstein

nemo.omen said...

and thought it was very plausible. People stick around when they're completely unhappy all the time. I thought the hopelessness of her giving up was a deft turn for the story, especially in how the husband just doesn't seem to understand what's going on.

nemo.omen said...

What on earth happened to the first part of my comment?

It went like this "I liked this story ..."

Seth Fleisher said...

I didn't get to read this piece yet--though it's sitting on my table--but I did get to hear Josh read from his new novel in progress at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference this past week. The excerpts he read were well realized and hysterically funny.

Coincidentally, my one-on-one meeting at Squaw was with Julie Barer, Josh's agent--she mentioned that she worked with Josh for three years to get this story out and into The New Yorker--they both seemed to be feeling really good about it.

Looking forward to his new novel (and to reading this story).

Clifford Garstang said...

Seth,
Very interesting. Thanks for that. A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of hearing Kevin Wilson read at Sewanee. He's also a client of Julie Barer with a book coming out soon . . .

jason said...

This story totally blew me away. I've been calling friends all day telling them to read it. I thought the dialogue was so smart and the descriptions of little details are delicious, e.g. "Someone reached into the fridge. The bright telescoping light broke the ambience and the door falling shut just as quickly restored it."

I got sucked into this story and felt like I was being led through a rabbit warren of tragic destiny. The collision of perspectives at the climax was powerful- the narrator's smooth, cool descriptions make the protagonist's being blindsided made it all the more shocking. Despite the other comments here, I thought the end was superb- it captured the wife as a prisoner of her own isolation and his solopsism.