A reader does not have to like a character to identify with them, even with their worst qualities. That certainly happens while reading The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris. The Dinner Party is a collection of eleven short stories, most of them focused on male anxiety and neuroses. All of them feature driven inner monologues that prove if we could read each others’ minds civilization would end in three hours.

The title story, The Dinner Party, gives us a man and wife preparing to host a dinner party with the wife’s friends whom the husband does not like. He insists on predicting the entire night’s conversation and mocking her friends, friends who never arrive. The Valetudinarian is an amusing story of how a self-obsessed bore finds a new lease on life by nearly dying. It’s kind of sweet and very funny. In The Pilot, we hear all the neurotic obsessing of the completely insecure. Leonard is a screenwriter who has been invited to one of the hottest Hollywood parties ever and is pretty sure that is has to be a mistake because he is not that successful. His relentless worrying and fretting over whether that was a real invite or a mistake, what to wear, what to say, is heartbreaking and hilarious.

In The Breeze, you have one of those what do you wanna do, no what do you wanna do quandaries that unfold in a multiverse of possibilities. It is my favorite story in the book–perhaps because so many of the stories are about male anxiety and alienation. More Abandon
(Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope? is another story with real humor and heart, a story that shows you the dangers of working late at the office. Work late, ruin your life. A Fair Price is different from the others in its consequences, but again, we have man talking himself into destruction, a common theme throughout the book. Without self-talk, this book would be tiny and have no plot.

I liked The Dinner Party very much even if many of the people are detestable. Perhaps we all are detestable in our heads in different ways. The insecurity, anxiety, delusion, excuse-making, rationalization, and obsession all seems very plausible and real, though perhaps exaggerated.

These are not stories about likable people, but perhaps that is the point. We can understand and even empathize despite their flaws. Ferris is compassionate and is challenging us to find our own compassion for these lost and lonely men and women who either do not know what they want, do not want what they have, or are in the process of losing what they want and what they have even when it is their fault.

I received a copy of The Dinner Party from the publisher through NetGalley.