“The Height of Wonder-Bread, Upper-Middle-Class White Privilege”: Joshua Ferris & Jonathan Safran Foer

Yesterday I read the latest short-story offering from the outlet reputed to offer the best in the land, The New Yorker. In Joshua Ferris’s “The Abandonment,” a man who’s apparently a semi-famous TV actor believes his wife has left him when she fails to return from a bagel run, and so, in apparent despair, he goes to the apartment of a woman he’s recently met. (He knows where she lives because after leaving the event where they met, they took a cab that dropped her off first, but her falling asleep on the ride seemed to indicate little interest in him.) This woman has kids and her apartment is very messy, in stark contrast to the neatness with which his wife keeps their apartment. While he’s there he tells her about his wife leaving him, talking himself and the woman into believing that what he really wants is her messy lived-in lifestyle rather than his wife’s overly neat forced one. They make out, and by the time he finally leaves they’re talking like they’re going to run away together. He passes her grumpy husband and “sullen” sons as he’s on the way out of the building. When he gets home, his wife is there—she didn’t really leave him, but ran into a friend and went dress shopping and lost track of time. She can tell he thought she left him, though, because apparently this has happened before, a few times. They make dinner and forget about it.

So the titular “abandonment” at first seems to be the main character’s wife leaving him, but then is really his abandoning that other woman for his wife. The title also has overtones of acting with wild “abandon.” The chronic tension is the state of the main character’s marriage and his abandonment issues, while the acute tension is the main character’s believing his wife has left him and seeking refuge in a random stranger he then convinces he’s in love with. 

The story does interesting things with psychic distance, evident even from the first sentence:

When he returned to the bagel place, there was the usual line, but his hope dwindled with every face that wasn’t hers.

Ferris has told us what this character is thinking (his hope is dwindling because he’s looking for a girl he can’t find) but Ferris has not not told us anything about who that girl is–thus our interest is piqued; a question is raised, but not by closing off access to the character’s interiority. Eventually we put together that this woman is his wife and that she’s left him, surprising because the opening seemed to set us up for a scenario of unrequited love, that he might have been looking for someone he didn’t know very well, but in fact it’s the opposite. Then, when he gets to the other girl’s apartment, we have no idea who she is to him and only gradually learn she’s someone he just met; this is done again by focusing primarily on actions and dialogue rather than internal thought, and the internal thought we do get is only immediately relevant, perhaps coy in its withholdings but not unnaturally so, as with the opening.

While some of the conversation (about how people’s odors stand for their lives) might feel a bit heavy-handed, it does build an interesting psychological portrait of the character, who we learn had parents who got married and divorced multiple times, which by the end we come to understand is probably at the root of his intense fear that his wife will abandon him—though the marriage itself probably has something to do with it. The conclusion leaves you (or me at least) hurting for the abandoned woman who might, at the very moment the main character and his reconciled wife are starting dinner, be abandoning her husband…what the story really captures in its almost abrupt ending is a certain callousness incumbent in white privilege: our main character may or may not have damaged someone else’s life irreparably, but that doesn’t matter. What matter is that our main white male character is happy. This is just another day in his life, business as usual.  

Of course, the bad taste this ending leaves in the mouth is likely intentional on Ferris’s part, who is likely, hopefully, trying to call attention to this endemic callousness. But one does wonder–both if he’s actually trying to do that, and if doing that is, in the end, enough.

One wonders even more after looking at the collected list of stories Ferris has published with The New Yorker, which will come out in his first short-story collection next year: “The Breeze,” “The Fragments,” “The Dinner Party,” “The Valetudinarian,” “The Pilot,” and now “The Abandonment” share subject matter as similar as the structure of their titles (the one titular exception in Ferris’ New Yorker publication record being “Good Legs”): upper-middle class NYC couples struggling to connect. (Their titles are also somewhat reminiscent of the late James Michener’s: Chesapeake, Hawaii, Texas, Mexico, Poland, South Pacific, Space, as though each were the absolute and definitive account of that region, a symptom of white privilege if ever there was one.)

What makes Ferris stand out from his cohort is the technical tricks with which he treats common subject matter, like the first-person plural narration of his debut novel Then We Came to the End, about life in an advertising office. But he might be proving himself if not a one-trick pony, then at least a trick pony. His success might have more to do with the culture he writes in than his writing itself. This is not to say his writing is bad–far from it. On a sentence and structure level, Ferris excels. But does he excel that much more than others who might be writing about content more worth reading? And more importantly, should I devote time to reading more of his work when, most likely, there are more just as equally decent writers out there than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime?

I might not have been pondering such issues had I not also just happened to read a Gawker review trashing another New Yorker story by a young white male New Yorker writer, Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer is opening the 2016-17 Inprint Reading Series here in Houston, which offers the biggest literary names of the day, and is thus itself a reflection of the current literary landscape–more specifically, the diversity of that landscape. Of this year’s ten readers, three are white men (the American Jonathan Safran Foer and George Saunders, and the Irish Colm Toibin), not an overwhelming ratio, certainly, but these three white men get the stage to themselves for their readings; the women Lauren Groff and Ann Patchett read together the same night, as do the Lebanese American novelist Rabih Alameddine and Latin American novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez, as do the poets Ada Limon and Gregory Pardlo. The only other writer who gets the stage to herself is Annie Proulx. The conclusion to be drawn here is an obvious one: white writers are more popular, and white male writers are the most popular.

My own tastes, and therefore this blog, are equally reflective of this generalization; the majority of my personal posts here, if not the students’, are about white male writers; my favorite writers are George Saunders, Adam Johnson, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen. While there are many female writers and writers of color whose work I admire (Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan, Miranda July, Toni Morrison, Tiphanie Yanique, Marlon James, just to name a few), clearly I have some work to do on the literary diversification front. (I understand why some (or many) might be put off by the work of Wallace and Franzen, but maintain that everyone should read George Saunders, if not Adam Johnson.) Some might point out/argue that white male writers are more popular because there are simply more of them; it’s simply a matter of numbers. But the fact that there are more of them is precisely the problem. 

Gawker engages in the type of snarky insulting reviews that I personally prefer to abstain from (which might be why the writers don’t post their names on their articles), but, 1. Sometimes the quality of the insults have to be appreciated both for their prose and cleverness (whether or not you deem it an accurate assessment of the subject):

It is so inept that offering edits, other than “do anything else with your time,” misses the point.

Foer’s stories obscure, hint at and extend into no depths. He is all tip and no iceberg.

And 2. This reviewer, whoever he is, makes some interesting points. He charts Foer’s literary history, claiming that it’s all been downhill since the potentially promising opening paragraph of his first book, Everything Is Illuminated, published when Foer was 21. Like Ferris’, Foer’s was a debut that depended largely on technical tricks, though both these debuts were as successful as they were in my opinion because these tricks did result in an emotional payoff.

I do not disagree with the review’s assessment that some of the language got cumbersome in EIL, though one commenter astutely criticizes the review’s criticizing this cumbersome language in cumbersome language:

“His arabesques fatten into ponderous and verbose associations.”

Apparently it’s contagious.

The review has pinpointed the craft issue at the heart of the problem with the story it’s ultimately about, “Love is Blind and Deaf”–that while EIL at least has “a strong idea of ‘character,’” this story does not. If the title didn’t clue you in, instead of character, it’s all about theme. Foer retells the story of Adam and Eve in a way that moves them further toward two-dimensional puppets rather than in the direction one might hope a literary recounting would aspire to–toward that of flesh-and-blood humans:

First they fought passively, then they despaired privately, then they used the new words ambiguously, then pointedly, then they conceived Cain, then they hurled the early creations, then they argued about who owned the pieces of what had never belonged to anybody.  

Insightful if you consider the philosophical ramifications (how true it is that no land ever really belonged to anyone), but it’s hard to get invested emotionally in pure philosophy. The Gawker review’s criticism is more complex, and somewhat hard to follow, though far from off base: Foer is writing a fantasy about the time that preexisted our five senses, and thus preexisted judgment. This is evidence for the larger analysis that Foer, as in his own words from the story, “simply doesn’t exist enough,” that he is the product of and/or emblematic of the larger movement toward banal meaninglessness in contemporary literature, that “[f]or buyer and seller, the appearance of quality outshines quality itself.” The review accuses Foer’s characters of all being carbon copies of Foer. Indeed, the name of the main character in his debut hit was “Jonathan Safran Foer.” This seemed a novel trick at the time, so to speak, but if JSF doesn’t exist enough, as the review charges, i.e., he is nothing, then to have him at the center of his novels, as the review further charges, would mean his novels are based on nothing. Even if he does exist enough, you should only get away with such novel tricks once. Unless you’re JSF, the Gawker review charges, in which case “[a]nything after the first chapter doesn’t even need to be passable.” The review’s titular accusation that JSF is “blind, deaf, and dumb” must then mean that we the readers are, too. 

Only Foer’s third novel, Here I Am, out next month, will reveal the maturation of a prodigy or proof of the Gawker reviewer’s theory that we have come to accept as our new fictional God the type of “weak narcissism” with which Foer imbues his non-character Adam. And yet I feel conflicted about investing even more of my time in this white male writer to find out. 

At the risk of introducing more New Yorker writers, Jia Tolentino just reviewed two debut novels by women about white privilege that she defends as calling attention to the issue rather than fomenting or reinforcing it, claiming they make “an implicit case that the future belongs to” their–albeit fleetingly represented–minority characters:

Both “The Nest” [by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney] and “[Sons and Daughters of] Ease and Plenty” [by Ramona Ausubel] serve as good reminders that even stories with few characters of color are, in their own way, very much “about race.”

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the white writers who have cornered this angle on white privilege are female.

-SCR

(images courtesy of The New Yorker)

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