Back when he wrestled, Duane “The Rock” Johnson was known as “The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment.” The same could be said of Joshua Ferris, if you replaced “Sports Entertainment” with “Contemporary Fiction,” and “Most” with “Least.”
If that claim surprises you, it’s probably because you recall the excitement that greeted Ferris’s debut novel, Then We Came to the End. It was described by no less a writer than Jim Shepard as “the Catch-22 of the business world.” It won the Pen/Hemingway Award, was a National Book Award Finalist, and sold (according to our own, inexpert reading of the BookScan numbers) over 100,000 copies. Ferris is currently adapting the screenplay for HBO.
The best thing about Then We Came to the End is the mock-serious, first-person plural narration that Ferris uses to relate the petty goings-on at a Chicago advertising agency. But that’s the ONLY good thing about Then We Came to the End. If you took away the innovative POV (and no one is saying you should; it’s the genius of the book) you’d be left with a handful of cheap jokes about office life. The office can be fertile ground for comedy, as demonstrated by The Office. Or it can be the easiest, least interesting target in the world, as demonstrated by every New Yorker cartoon ever. Then We Came to the End is like a corny Dilbert strip, in prose form, with a wonderfully skewed narrative approach that invigorates and redeems the whole thing.
But do you remember the middle section of Then We Came to the End, where Ferris breaks away from his exciting POV to describe Lynn Mason and her heart-wrenching battle with breast cancer, and you start to wonder if maybe Ferris is, like, a really bad writer? He has the right idea—to switch up the narration, and bring us down to earth with a serious portrayal of a personal disease in the midst of all this office humor—but Lynn Mason feels like a stereotype of a conflicted female executive (a stereotype that suits her elsewhere in the book, but not here) and the writing is, like, maddeningly banal. It’s like Ferris thinks he’s the first person to consider the possibility that breast cancer can be hard on a woman. It’s like he forgot he had an audience. Here’s a passage from that section, where Lynn Mason is putzing around the house before her first chemo appointment.
Television isn’t working out. She turns it off, gets up, makes the cold transition from carpet to tile—but what is there in the kitchen for someone looking to indulge? No food for twelve hours my ass. This could be it. Let’s see—some freezer-burned ice cream. What’s in the cupboard? A third of a bag of mini marshmallows. For the life of her she can’t remember buying those. She’s not interested in any of it—though when she turns her attention to cleaning the bedroom closet, she does take the ice cream with her. It’s a spoon-bender. What compels her to do that, to clean? She stabs at the tub after every new pile of mess she drags from the closet out into the tidy room. It will be nice, she thinks, to have a nice clean closet during my recovery.
Somehow this section manages to make a life-threatening illness—and an adult’s emotional response to it—boring as hell.
So now, as the world gets ready for Ferris’s much-anticipated second book, it’s time to confront the possibility that our worst fears may be true: that the brilliant parts of Then We Came to the End were a fluke, and the tedious parts are the norm; that aside from the quirky POV in his first book, Joshua Ferris is a totally boring writer.
For evidence we’ll turn to his recent stories in The New Yorker and Tin House.
“The Dinner Party” is about a young married couple who are waiting for their friends to show up for, yes, a dinner party. And they’re talking horrible smack about their friends. But it’s only because they feel insecure, because their friends are about to have a baby, while the wife who’s throwing the dinner party is infertile. Again, it’s like Ferris thinks he’s the first person to realize that infertility can be hard on a woman. The story takes a mildly interesting twist when it turns out the friends are never coming, because they are busy throwing a party of their own. But the characters in “The Dinner Party” feel like stick figure sketches of middle-class white people, and you’re left with a blank feeling about the whole proceedings. Here’s an excerpt taken out of context to prove our point.
He found the room empty. Her wedding ring and the one with the diamond were on the counter, where she always put them before starting to cook anything. The sink had filled with dishes. On the stove, a big pot and a smaller one with a handle unfurled steam into the beige hood where the vent rattled. The door of the cabinet under the sink hung open. He checked the bathroom off the kitchen. He returned the way he’d come, through the apartment, in the unlikely event she had passed by without his noticing as he was sitting on the sofa. He returned to the kitchen, to the animated appliances and stewing ingredients. She came in through the front door.
“Where’d you go?”
“Took the garbage down,” she said.
“I would have done that.”
Everybody look at the normals!
A different Ferris story, “Uncertainty,” is about a another young, middle-class, urban married couple whose primary source of anxiety is also pregnancy. But this time there’s also a sick dog who lives with their upstairs neighbor. Who are you going to fret over? The pathos-inducing expectant mother, or the pathos-inducing sick little doggie?
And finally “The Valetudinarian” is Ferris’s idea of a real madcap adventure. Its main character is Arty Groys, an elderly, retired, vaguely Jewish man who lives in a Florida condo and complains about his health. You’re cracking up already, right? But wait. He meets… a prostitute. So there’s an elderly man and a prostitute. In a condo. In Florida. Can’t you just see the possibilities?
“The Valetudinarian” comes to an end in the middle of its climactic scene, when Arty Groys flashes back to a preposterously beautiful and symbolic moment from his youth.
Or maybe his strength was only an illusion, just as it had been one summer when he was a boy playing ball, that day he attempted to steal second and was forced to slide as the ball neared the infielder’s glove. The infielder missed, and the ball went long, and when he saw that he was free for a run to third he jumped up and took off, despite the hairline fracture that would make itself known—through a pain that came with a dawning awareness of what lay in store—only later, long after he had passed the third-base coach gesturing like mad and made it home, graceful as a dancer, bodiless, ageless, immortal, a boy on a summer day with a heart as big as the sun, with all his troubles, his sorrows, his losses, all his whole long life still ahead of him, still unknown, unable on that still golden field to cast its tall, unvanquishable, ever-dimming shadow.
When Ferris writes about a woman with cancer, she becomes The Woman With Cancer, and nothing more. When he writes about a barren wife, she is The Barren Wife. When he writes about an elderly man, he is The Elderly Man. Sentence by sentence, Ferris is a fine writer—as his degrees from the University of Iowa and UC Irvine should attest. But does he have to employ these stock characters and pedestrian plots to such little effect? Other writers of domestic dramas either put a fresh spin on familiar events (like Grace Paley, or Alice Munro) or render scenes with such emotional sensitivity that we see new nuances in them (Stewart O’Nan, William Trevor). The way Ferris approaches these domestic stories, it’s more like he’s completing an assignment. He may have graduated from two of the best writing programs in the world, but was anyone there excited about his work?
Dear Ferris’s next book: try to be exciting.