The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris, 2008
The magic trick:
Not describing or developing the characters; allowing the reader to empathize more easily
There’s something very interesting going on in this story that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s almost as if it isn’t that good. My first read – and I’ve now read this four times over the last four years for some reason, if that tells you anything – I found myself both enjoying it very much but also being surprised that it was published in The New Yorker. It just didn’t seem all that mature or original, maybe. Not really very developed.
But here’s the thing. That lack of development isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength. Ferris never really fleshes out the characters. They say witty things. They show lots of dramatic emotions. But who are they? The story never describes their appearance. Doesn’t tell us what they do for a living. Only hints vaguely at their hopes and dreams.
As a result, the reader can very easily insert themselves into the story. Oh, we think, that sounds like a situation I was in. Oh, we think, that’s an exaggerated reaction she’s having there in that scene, but wait, I said something very similar last week, didn’t I?
This story isn’t very developed or original or sophisticated. Which is why it’s so easy for us to take part in it. And that’s quite a trick on Ferris’s part.
“That’s another thing,” he said. “Their big surprise. Even their goddam surprises are predictable.”
“You need to act surprised for their sake,” she said.
“Wait for a little opening,” he said, “a little silence, and then he’ll say, he’ll be very coy, he’ll say, ‘Why don’t you tell them?’ And she’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and he’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and then she’ll say, ‘O.K., O.K., I’ll tell them.’ And we’ll take in the news like we’re genuinely surprised—like, holy shit, can you believe she’s knocked up, someone run down for a Lotto ticket, someone tell Veuve Clicquot, that bastard will want to know! And that’s just the worst, how predictable our response to their so-called news will be.”
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