"The Abandonment"
by Joshua Ferris
Originally published in the August 1, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

August 1, 2016It’s been a few years since Joshua Ferris’s fiction appeared in The New Yorker. I’ve both really liked and really disliked his work. Consequently, I have no idea what to expect with “The Abandonment.”

Looking forward to all the thoughts below!

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By |2016-07-25T00:30:30-04:00July 25th, 2016|Categories: Joshua Ferris, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Sean H July 29, 2016 at 4:01 am

    I’m a fan of Ferris’s and this one teetered back and forth between moderately successful and not-quite-good-enough, and unfortunately, after some contemplation, at the end of the piece I have to say it falls into the second category.
    The married mother, home with the sleeping baby and willing to open up to a near-stranger is very well-written and just longing to be a person again instead of a mom. Ferris really captures her desperation and says something about how society drains mothers of their humanity and their sexuality. She wants to be girlish and romantic again and is given the perfect opportunity to do so. She feels guilt, and is obviously caught up in the moment, and I think Ferris unwittingly reveals more about himself and about American norms regarding monogamy than he might care to admit. Only in a relatively insane and parochial and conservative nation would we get all worked up in a tizzy about a simple kiss (or any act of sexual congress, really; like, you actually expect people to go forty or fifty years and never kiss or screw anyone else?). But I guess this one felt lacking to me mostly because it wasn’t storyish enough. There wasn’t much of a dramatic arc. The return to his own wife and the semi-reveal (or quasi-twist) that it’s the he who’s a little off and that he was an unreliable close-third person protagonist all along, that he’s more than just a little neurotic and maybe not all that able to perceive the world correctly and is way too quick to play the victim card, that scene’s rewarding in and of itself but doesn’t really complete/punctuate the story or make me reflect on what came before. It’s more of, oh, he’s a little more askew than we’d been let to believe.
    Not a failure or a bad story by any means, just a little lacking in pep or zing. Felt like pretty familiar ground and overall the prose didn’t wow me. I like some of the sublimated weirdness and the aversion to overstatement, but it’s nowhere near Ferris at his best.

  2. David July 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Sean, I share much of your reaction, but I had an even more negative one. You describe the end as a semi-reveal or quasi-twist, but for me the problem was that it was no reveal or twist at all. From the beginning it was clear this guy was more than a little off. Not only was my initial thought that he is weirdly over-reacting to his wife’s absence, but then he goes wandering the streets looking for her in his pyjamas? Just bizarre. So the entire time he is visiting this other woman I was more distracted wondering how much she realizes that he is not quite right and whether her lack of realizing it makes her not quite right too. So it all became a mess quite quickly for me.

    Making the main character an unspecified, but recognizable actor also did not seem to help the story. It gave an unfortunate alternative explanation for why the woman he visits was indulging him. It’s not that she didn’t realize that he’s a bit off and it’s not that she just wants to recapture something in her life again. She’s just in awe of his celebrity and that he would be interested in her. So what seems a small detail with no discernible purpose in the story ends up blunting what might otherwise be there.

  3. pauldepstein July 29, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Unevenly paced. His throwing away the phone and then trying to look for it again deserved more than just two fairly short sentences.

  4. Greg July 31, 2016 at 7:27 am

    Sean – Thank you for highlighting that the mother wants to be a whole person. Also, for pointing out that the expectation of total monogamy is absurdly unrealistic in our society.

    David and Paul – I agree with you that the weirdness of parts of this story took away my enjoyment.

  5. Danny August 1, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    I was bothered by the character of the married mother, who I believe was written in a shallow and misogynistic way. She’s isn’t much more than a horny housewife archetype from an adult film. After a very short conversation (where he makes several huge generalizations about her life and personality) she’s considering abandoning her husband and 3 children for him? I guess in my core I didn’t feel that he characterized her in any way that was specific, or that she truly represented anything beyond sex. the desperate housewife angle only figured into the plot as a tool for him to seduce her with.

  6. Trevor Berrett August 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    I’d love to hear what some moms have to say about this story. Does Ferris capture her as well as Sean says he does? I’m not sure, but otherwise Sean expressed my own reaction to the story very well, though, like David, my own reaction was more negative. I’d call “The Abandonment” rather poor. The conversation in the story that demonstrated the characters’ frustration at their lives was tedious to my eyes, without revealing anything particularly interesting, and not in the least redeemed by the story’s revelation.

    I am intrigued by the “sublimated weirdness,” as Sean puts it, but that element didn’t really go anywhere that I could discern. Unlike, Greg, I guess, I’d have liked more weirdness and less of the hum-drum “grass is greener” conversation that took up the bulk of the word count and that, for me, subverted Ferris’s depiction of the characters’ real disturbances and desperations.

  7. Trevor Berrett August 2, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Danny, sorry that I missed your comment earlier and only just now moderated it in. I only need to moderate first-time commenters, so you’ll not have that problem again. You’re touching on something I think I felt but didn’t quite realize I was feeling as I read the story. It’s one reason I’d like some moms to comment here, because I really don’t get much more from Ferris’s story than even a slapped up post on a mommy bloggers website. I don’t quite go all the way you do that she’s a horny housewife stereotype, but I think Ferris’s depiction of a woman who has been backed into the corners of her own life is not particularly enlightening. I’ll have to think more on your condemnation that it is misogynistic.

  8. Greg August 3, 2016 at 12:04 am

    Trevor and Danny – I completely get what you are saying. This woman’s plight has been addressed many times in the past. Nevertheless, this situation represents a continuous systemic failure of equality in our Western society which therefore requires to be addressed repeatedly in literature in order to inspire large scale behavioral change. That being said, this important subject needs to be approached creatively, and I agree with you that it ‘falls flat’.

  9. William August 9, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Having just come from the “King’s Teacup” thread, I have some of the issues raised in that discussion on my mind. To me, Ferris’s story looks a lot like the kind of “self-indulgent” writing talked about for Andreason’s story, where a writer keeps something (in this case, the whole story) that he should have discarded. In fact, I think Ferris should have murdered his darling during its conception. And while people accused Andreason of being self-indulgent in the service of originality, Ferris has no such rationale. Heavy-handed irony was perfected by Maupassant, resurrected briefly by Kate Chopin (“Desiree’s Baby”) and then died. It has no place in contemporary fiction. Irony can work if it reveals something about the characters (“Anna On the Neck”) but in this story it doesn’t

    As other people have noted, this story doesn’t work because it’s predictable. Also the device of making him an actor is crude, it doesn’t fit organically into the story. And the “seduction” dialogue is unconvincing, to my ear. Moreover, the whole business about his fickle parents dissolving and remaking families is a patent device to give the protagonist a backstory. I am not a fan of the backstory — if you can’t make the characters’ actions credible within the framework of the story, you need to rethink. .

    All in al, the whole story was just a long tedious setup for the punch line — what my dad used to call a shaggy dog story.

    Now on to the much-anticipated Tessa Hadley production.

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