Joshua Ferris Invites You to The Dinner Party
'When writing stories, when recording behaviour, when sending messages, I consistently suggested that change, improvement, progress, even hope, were out of reach, foreclosed, impossible.'
Described by The Guardian as by turns ‘thoughtful, mordant and funny’, Man-Booker shortlisted author Joshua Ferris’s first short story collection The Dinner Party is both a catalogue of biting satire and a gleefully skewering observation of modern life. These stories are, by the author’s own admission, not a mirror of mankind’s finest qualities, but then short stories seldom are. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he digs deeper into the darker corners of short fiction and examines the themes that inhabit the best short stories.
I kicked sugar recently, and I started looking at clouds again. Rocks, too. The clouds, mostly those hanging above the Catskill mountains, to the west of me, are summer clouds, profusions of magical stuff, more photographic than real, as if sharpened around the edges by an expert retoucher and leant dimension and depth out of some different land and era. The rocks are much smaller, and require me to get down on my haunches and screw up my eyes, but they are no less captivating and fantastical, though most are just plain old rocks you’ve seen a million times.
All of this is right outside my door most mornings, if the weather cooperates, and I will stand out there in a ring of trees, in a bowl of brightness, after my family drives off for the day, feeling the young sun at the gate and waiting for a good sneeze—just because. There is nothing to be gained, no insight or secret knowledge is imparted out there. There is just the joy of it, the clarity, the crisp, cleansing feeling of being out in it, between the clouds above and the rocks below.
Inside again, at my desk, thinking resumes. What’s on my mind lately, among other things: an upcoming party we’ll be hosting, a one-week teaching assignment I’ve committed to, my son’s imagination and my limits as a father, our end-of-world politics, and the short story. My collection of stories called The Dinner Party comes out in the UK on June 29th, and in it, I’ve come to see, people do not generally take notice of such things as clouds or rocks, or do anything so mundane and transformative (as it turns out) as going off sugar cold turkey. In one of my stories, ‘The Breeze,’ the main character does notice a rare, limpid breeze at the start of spring and afterwards sets out to make the most of things, with mixed results. Mostly, however, change—personal or interpersonal, societal or political, or any other on an equally large or small scale—does not occur. If it does, it’s in the direction not of brighter tomorrows but of disenchantment, disharmony, even death. Why is that?
I wrote these stories over the course of fifteen years, and during that time, I suppose I would have called myself, if I had been asked, a politically progressive, idealistic advocate of secular humanism, of the belief that the arc of the moral world bends toward justice and that progress, while fitful, was the destiny of the human race. But when writing stories, when recording behaviour, when sending messages, I consistently suggested that change, improvement, progress, even hope, were out of reach, foreclosed, impossible.
I prefer not to think of writing stories as sending messages. I prefer to think of the act as a leap of faith and of the product of that leap a thing necessarily (if it’s any good) containing something wordless, something mysterious, going beyond the brute signal. But it’s possible to read for message alone, and knowing these stories, eleven in total, as I do, because I authored them and reworked them again and again over time, I’ve seen a pattern. And once I discerned that pattern, I saw it repeated also in nearly every literary short story I’d ever encountered.
To confirm it, anecdotally, I went back to some classics, serially anthologized stuff like Nathaniel Hawthorn’s ‘The Birth-Mark.’ A morality tale along the lines of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ‘The Birth-Mark’ is a story of the folly and destruction that follows any attempt to reengineer the human animal or improve upon Mother Nature. I reread ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener,’ the greatest rebuke I know to civilized man’s sense of order, reason and enlightenment, and to its hope for betterment. Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ is a nasty little corrective to notions of personal freedom, as is James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ most of John Cheever’s considerable output, the best of Chekhov, the classic Joyce Carol Oates story ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ and a lot of the stories by contemporaries as diverse as George Saunders, Deborah Eisenberg and Jhumpa Lahiri. Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ is another, and a parable of what quick work the world makes of the no-longer-useful in favour of youth and beauty. No human progress there. The desire to break out, to be something better, something braver, ends poorly in Hemingway’s ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ while his ‘Hills like White Elephants’ makes plain just how close the Lost Generation always was to the fabled glades of ‘Young Goodman Brown.’ Charlie Wales in Fitzgerald’s ‘Babylon Revisited’ tries his best to reform his alcoholic playboy ways in the direction of a more respectable happiness, but the past catches up with him soon enough and he’s punished for it, and the story ends with him sitting at the Ritz before a whiskey and sour. The list goes on.
Conservatism in art might be thought of as containing broad statement, cliché, and naive or dishonest sentiment. In among this disparaging list, one also finds plenty of proof of personal progress, institutional reform, and happy endings—the opposite, in other words, of conservatism in the political realm, where a gimlet eye is cast over progress of any kind. Out in the world, conservatism is rooted in Old Testament determinisms and the idea of original sin. People are stained with error that’s impossible to scrub out, and any large-scale attempt to alter the flaws in human nature, like Soviet Communism or Mao’s Great Leap Forward, are doomed to failure. People don’t progress so much as stay in line, or stray out of it. Deliverance is for the next world. Society, meanwhile, must have its safeguards. Born wayward, we are subject to a strict moral code and punished when necessary.
These appear, upon closer inspection, to be the basic tenets of the literary short story as well, to which progressives of all stripes might naturally gravitate sooner than they would religious texts to hear news of the human being.
There are exceptions, of course. Here are just a few of my favourites: Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral,’ wherein an unqualified jerk receives grace in the literal hands of a blind man; Donald Barthelme’s ‘The School,’ where hope and progress are proven by the sudden appearance, of all things, of a new gerbil; the final story in Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son,’ in which the narrator has not only reformed in the direction of virtue but also found, as angels do in heaven, a community (‘I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.’) But the question remains: how much of these are not just fictions, but contemporary fairy tales? I’d say Johnson’s collection strikes such a chord with readers (and other writers, especially) because deliverance from a despised past is so rare in short fiction (and life?), the successful escape so infrequent, that we all take succour from it, and think of Johnson for having pulled it off as a kind of ministering angel. But of course most of the individual stories do not deliver what that final one does; it takes a whole collection to convey movement of that kind (identical to the space afforded one in a novel). And between the first and last story, that dismal conservative view of the changeless individual and its doomed and benighted race repeats over and over like a refrain.
Give it a try. Pick your favourite ten or twenty short stories and reread them with this framework in mind. How much actual change is enacted? How much hope in the future is conveyed? Does knowledge and enlightenment lead to greater happiness, or only greater disenchantment? If the story does not overtly conjure the possibility of heaven, what chance here on earth does it suggest there is for individual and/or social and/or institutional/political progress?
I’m sure I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said in a hundred dissertations. What’s curious is to find myself holding a certain set of beliefs out in the world, and then undermining them at the more subterranean or subconscious level where my stories get written. I don’t seem to do progress or reform or happy endings any better than the next guy—in keeping, apparently, with both the dictates of progressive art and a conservative political philosophy I have long disdained. My characters do not change so much as bore down deeper into their core selves, exposing their inexplicable and immitigable limits—repeating, rather than progressing, like figures in a circle of hell. Or people stained from the start of time. In that one respect, these stories share something in common with Flannery O’Connor’s fierce and pitiless fictions, with Conrad’s grim conclusions and Beckett’s wandering bums, with all the graceless in Carver and the human viciousness in William Faulkner and Shirley Jackson. They share with Doris Lessing and Richard Yates and Guy de Maupassant and Alice Munro and James Alan McPherson and Frank O’Connor and about ninety percent of the other writers I can think of a deep and abiding scepticism about where we’re going and where we’ve been. Why that should be from a guy who can kick a wicked long sugar habit and who spends part of his morning studying the pretty clouds and neat-o rocks in a blissed-out state of the purest optimism, I don’t claim to understand.