Anxieties of white American males

Short story collections, snubbed by literary agents as a tougher sell, are often put out after an author has found significant success as a novelist.

In the case of Joshua Ferris (Man Booker-shortlisted for the brilliant collectively-narrated novel of office life, Then We Came To The End, and an account of a dentist grappling with despair and religion, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour), this pattern remains the same.

Featuring 11 stories published in various magazines and prestigious literary journals, including The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner and the Iowa Review, the collection offers a glimpse into Ferris' development as a writer - or at least bite-sized versions of themes worked through in his fuller-length works.

The material here can be summed up as "awful male". Ferris' protagonists - almost all white American males - act up: in crumbling marriages, stifling workplaces and the minefields of social gatherings. Against urban backdrops, they agonise over First World problems and turn over the minutiae of their privileged lives until it drives them (and this reader) a little crazy.

The titular The Dinner Party, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 2008, tells of a couple who are stood up by another couple during a dinner party. Out of this premise is spun a portrait of a prickly marriage, a hair's breadth from falling apart, as well as the unspoken rules of friendship and socialising. It makes for, possibly, a somewhat-riveting episode on a HBO or Netflix drama series pitched at the post-Girls crowd.

The Pilot, meanwhile, is an extended commentary of an aspiring screenwriter's tremulous decisions leading up to his attendance of a famous showrunner's party. All the jitters, from RSVP etiquette to what to wear, culminate in a tragic fall in more ways than one.



    By Joshua Ferris

    Viking/ Paperback/ 256 pages/ $29.91/Books Kinokuniya

    3/5 stars

And in The Valetudinarian, a 66-year-old widower sulks in his retirement condominium in Florida on his birthday until a Russian prostitute reignites his love for life.

The subject matter is easy to make fun of, being so seemingly trivial. At times, one is tempted to hurl the book across the room in disgust, at the mind-numbing self-absorption of these characters, their neurotic dissection of every minor choice and the capriciousness of their moods. Yet, one senses that Ferris has brought his clean, pared-down style to bear on these existences, to lift the lid on their emptiness and despair.

In an echo - or prequel - of Then We Came To The End, a middle manager trashes his colleagues' offices in the night in More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened To Joe Pope?). A celebrity casually ruins a family to ease his painful insecurities (The Stepchild). And a soon-to-be bridegroom, marked by childhood trauma, lashes out at a taciturn hired hand.

Still, these stories often come across as devoid of a certain depth, so intent are they on portraying the circumstances and emotions beneath the mundane.

The stand-out is The Breeze, a series of vignettes playing out the scenarios in a couple's date night. Infused with the very contemporary FOMO, or fear of missing out, it plays poignantly to reveal the fleetingness of love.

If you like this, read: Last Day On Earth: Stories by Eric Puchner (Scribner, 2017, $41.38, Kinokuniya) - masterful tales on the pain of having family.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline 'Anxieties of white American males'. Print Edition | Subscribe