Joshua Ferris’s new collection of short stories is heavily populated with the sort of needy, self-absorbed urban males familiar to readers of his Booker-shortlisted novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Ferris’s characters repeatedly pace the ground of infidelity, rocky marriages and empty social functions in search of greater meaning, and invariably come up short. Despite the stories’ pessimism, Ferris delineates his characters’ experiences with such acute observation and sharp satire that they end up seeming more comic than tragic. These elements often delightfully intertwine, as in the case of an arguing couple: ‘She stopped resisting and swiveled to face him. Passersby, intrigued by the sight of another life on fire, skirted around them and turned back to stare.’ Even in the midst of relationship combustion, Ferris notes the comedy of human behaviour with an accuracy that captures the harried, alienated nature of urban life.
In this collection, for the most part, that means life in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, places where ‘life’ means going to dinner with people you hate, gaining invites to parties graced by celebrities and enduring hours of sweaty purgatory in the overcrowded subway. The subway, in