The Dinner Party
by Joshua Ferris
Viking

Joshua Ferris wrote one of the finest American novels of recent memory. Then We Came to the End (2007) did for office politics what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) did for war. After the anti-climactic The Unnamed (2010), his reputation stabilised with an enjoyably uneven To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014). A collection of short stories, The Dinner Party will probably be seen as a stopgap between novels and, despite his enviable talent for witty dialogue, it frequently reads like one. The title tale sets out Ferris’ stall for writing eloquently about unhappy, upwardly-mobile relationships. One New York couple cooks dinner for another. The male protagonist moans wittily about the predictable tedium ahead, until the guests don’t show. They have thrown a party instead and excluded our hero and heroine. The punchline is breezily bleak and, like many of the ensuing stories, funny without puncturing the skin. The Valetudinarian provides a convincing portrait of old age’s physical shocks, while The Pilot serves a feast of paranoid embarrassment starring a cast-off from a David Foster Wallace fantasy. Ferris’ comic talent keeps you reading contentedly, but the overall effect is strangely slight.