Monday, July 12, 2010

Short-a-Day: Joshua Ferris's "The Pilot"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

A life, reduced to just one of hundreds of blind carbon copies on an impersonally e-mailed invitation to what is the Party of the Year only to the sort of person--like protagonist Lawrence--who has nothing else going on. And yet, Ferris--known for his spot-on observations of a mundane office in And Then We Came To The End--turns this into another miniature tragedy, expressing the character's frazzled nervousness in clipped, repetitive sentences: "He didn't expect a reply. It was a mass e-mail--she couldn't reply to everyone who'd replied." This leads, in turn, to his worry that she hadn't meant to invite him specifically, but had accidentally lumped him in, Facebook-style, in a Rolodex-dump. And that, in turn, leads to his concern over the lack of a reminder e-mail; was the party actually tonight? Was he still invited, if he had ever been invited to begin with?

The luminous center of his story, Lawrence's TV-writing idol Kate Lotvelt, writes similar stuff. "How, week after week, did Kate Lotvelt turn something so morbid and frightening into the funniest show in television." Her show is directly about death, but then again, so is Ferris's story--his is just a much slower, sadder burn. In fact, not much of a satire, ultimately, as a eulogy: "What was the better option--go to the party of the year, to which he'd been invited, and network with actors and executives? Or return home to Atlanta and die? Those were his choices. So what that the protocol for kissing hello kept shifting on him?" Note that he's seriously asking these questions--it's actually a tough choice.

The story takes on a final bit of weight and heft with the introduction of Lawrence's mother, who, we learn, calls him once a day to make him promise that he won't drink. Suddenly, the context of Lawrence going to a party surrounded with alcohol sounds like a much bigger deal, and this bit sums it up best: "A whiskey and a chaser was all he needed to make it to Kate Lotvelt's party unconcerned about his place there and at ease without the sunglasses or the jacket, and sufficiently fortified that if the opportunity presented itself he could ask Kate to have a look at his pilot. It was only twenty-four pages. It was only a whiskey and a chaser."

The clever ending leaves you to conclude one of three things: a smashed Lawrence has drowned in Kate's pool--which is her version of television ("Death in the Family")--, a sobering Lawrence has woken up and, making it to the surface, has become reborn--which is what his pilot's become about ("The Life of the Party')--or, more realistically, since life isn't a television show, a liquid Lawrence is just floating there, going nowhere at all, doomed to return to the same-old same-old, this moment meaning, sadly, nothing at all.

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