To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris


Purchased at

Purchased at

Imagine a youngish chef (say in his late 30s) who has decided he has had enough of all traditional cuisine, be it French, nouvelle or any of the more recent fusions. He’s going to create his own — he’ll still use a stove, pots and pans and knives but this mix of Inuit, Brazilian and Eritrean is going to be something special. A few of his customers end up thinking he is brilliant, many at least appreciate the creative effort and some (more than a few it has to be said) think the whole thing is just plain silly.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the third novel from 39-year-old Joshua Ferris, but I’d say he has already “typed” himself as a writing version of that young chef. I sampled his first, Then We Came to the End (2007), and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat frothy, romp. Set in a failing Chicago ad agency, it had some truly comic moments and diversions, enough to offset the parts that just didn’t make sense — other readers had a much more negative reaction than mine. I was not tempted by his second, The Unnamed (2010), because reviews indicated it was more of the same. And I would have given this one a pass as well had it not been one of the original American novels to make the Booker longlist.

So just what story “cuisines” does Ferris try to fuse together in this one?

booker logoThe foundation one is dentistry of all things. The central character, Paul O’Rourke, is a Park Avenue dentist of some repute, with five treatment rooms (no office — the rent is expensive and that would mean one less chair) and a thriving practice. He’s proud of his work, so don’t think as a reader you won’t get some dental treatment reading, painful as it might be. As well, all but one of the other story threads are rooted in aspects of the dental practice.

Next into the mix is Ferris’ comic strain — and I knew from his debut (and some New Yorker stories) that he is a fine comic writer. Dentist O’Rourke, despite his reliance on his “me-machine” (that’s what he calls his cellphone) is techno-fearful and has always resisted the creation of a website for his practice:

I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.

And then one day, Paul’s receptionist/office manager (and ex-lover), Connie, calls him to the computer station: on-screen is a website for O’Rourke Dental, complete with accurate information and real, if dated, pictures of the staff. The novelist spins this out not so much as “identity theft” but “identity virus” — the website eventually is supplemented with a Facebook page and Twitter account. Given Paul’s own fascination with his me-machine, this particular thread supplies the platform for some quite good satire on modern social media.

Stream three springs from the clinic staff — in addition to Connie (Jewish, but not observant), there is his hygienist, Mrs. Convoy (who is a devout Catholic) and Paul’s aide, Abby, who appears in the novel only behind her pink paper mask and never says a word. Ferris doesn’t use this threesome so much as characters as he does metaphors for Paul’s historical love life:

I don’t get pussy whipped. I get cunt gripped. I get cunt gripped and just hope to get out alive. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes — so you can look forward to that one irrecuperable battering ram of a ballbreaker that will finally do you in.

To be cunt gripped means to show up at the door unannounced. It means calling at all hours. It means saying “I love you” far too soon, on or around the second date, and saying it all too frequently thereafter. When they caution that I might be moving too fast, I double down and send them flowers and fruit. To be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life.

This has happened four times in Paul’s life. The first two were in puberty and don’t really count at this stage of the story. The third, Sam Santacroce, came in university; the fourth was Connie. And we soon discover that Paul’s fascination was not with either Sam or Connie as individuals, but with their families, specifically their religious commitment and the “community” that that created — rabidly Catholic in Sam’s case, Jewish in Connie’s. Paul is not religious at all but he has a desperate compulsion for the security of the formality, ceremony, structure and discipline, above all discipline, that comes with fervent religious belief, whomever the particular superior being might be.

That desire fuels the fourth thread of the novel, which segues off both it and the “identity virus” and becomes the dominant one for most of the book. Whoever has created the website and other social media for O’Rourke Dental is a sect leader and excerpts from the religious texts of a lost Levantine tribe subject to frequent attempts at genocide start to appear on the various social media vehicles of the “virtual” Paul. Without giving too much away, the source of the identity virus is the founder of the religion of Ulm (whose central tenet is doubt in everything, starting with whether or not there is a God — not atheist or agnostic, just doubtful) and who is identifying and recruiting individuals (like Paul) whom he has decided have ancestral roots in the lost tribe.

And finally, just to put some icing on the cake and add some offbeat spice to the story (sorry about that — couldn’t resist extending the mixed metaphor, but Ferris has that effect on me), Paul is a lifelong Red Sox fan who watches, tapes and saves every game but always absents himself from the room for the sixth inning. Actually, he was more a fan of the Curse of the Bambino — since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, his enthusiasm has ebbed but old obsessions are hard to shed.

Much like Harriet Burden in the last book and first Booker longlister reviewed here (The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt), Paul is a character searching for his identity (which makes the “virtual” one perhaps the most innovative aspect of the novel). Unlike Harriet, however, who has a number of substantial identities that she is trying to meld into a single one, Paul’s quest is self-evidently hopeless from the start.

And, for this reader at least, silly.

While the early parts of the novel had their moments — especially the bits around social media — once the real and pseudo religious ones took over, it became positively distasteful (okay, my metaphor is now totally out of control — blame Ferris). And I would have to say that the twist that Ferris uses to end the book said to me that he was every bit as confused by his fusion as I was and had to grasp to find a conclusion.

I could accept To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an acceptable, if failed, effort at literary risk-taking that deserved to be published. For the life of me, I can’t understand how the Booker Jury decided it was one of the thirteen best novels of 2014.


20 Responses to “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    I was surprised to see him on the longlist, not because I have read this one, but because The Unnamed was so, so bad. Sounds like it’s more of the same which is a shame because I thought he showed a lot of promise with Then We Came to The End.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I too thought there was promise in his debut. As I said, I have not read The Unnamed but from my point of view this one played around (not very well) with some by now conventional (for Ferris) tricks and went downhill from his initial effort.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Sounds like this one started out OK, and then BAM! , it went downhill. Its a shame that it has taken up a Booker slot when other worthies are left on the sidelines.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for extending the over-extended metaphor even further, Emeril — BAM!. Yes, the early parts had some good moments — I am afraid the last half really did not.

      I think authors like Linda Grant, Martin Amis, Gerard Woodward and Ian MacEwan (all of whom had eligible books this year — none of which I have yet read, but all of which I intend to get to eventually) have good reason to complain about this one being on the list.


      • Lee Monks Says:

        Not one for your palate then, Kevin?

        I think plenty of your review is fair, although I’ll stick up for Ferris a little (despite absolutely agreeing with your suggestion that there are a fair few authors with every right to feel mystified with quite what has happened with the longlist: having now sampled most of it it’s hard to see what they’re after, other than to confuse speculators) in that I find most of this at least funny, and there aren’t many consistently funny writers around. But it’s more of an extended sketch than a successful novel, and taken as such fares pretty well for me. It does not, of course, belong amongst the final thirteen candidates for the Booker Prize. Ferris will be as astonished as anyone I’d imagine.

        All I hear about the new Amis is that it’s a return to form: I felt Lionel Asbo hinted at such a return but it sounds like it might be amongst his best (he has written far more interesting failures than successful novels) and, if so, it would’ve been nice to see it in amongst it.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Well, it tempted my palate (I liked the Eritrean part of Ferris’ stew/ragout/hash/bouillabaisse/whatever), but it didn’t deliver in the final analysis.

        (Just by way of levelling the culinary escapade, I’m planning on having mac’ ‘n cheese — maybe even Kraft Dinner — tonight.)

        I don’t mean to suggest that it is a totally bad novel — and if it weren’t for the Booker listing, I probably would have been more upbeat. But it is not consistently funny and the serious parts just did not work.

        You will note that Mrs. KfC (aka Sheila O’Brien) grabbed the Woodward off the table before me — and loved it. And I have the Grant (yes, I like her work) and have been trying to figure out how to slip it in between Booker readings, because the description intrigues me. I’m eagerly awaiting Mitchell (expectations high) and Ali Smith (expectations somewhat lower) as not-yet-released longlist books. And that still leaves Amis and MacEwan waiting, even if the jury did not like them. With four Booker longlists now under my belt, I’m thinking I’ve tested the amuse boches and a couple of the appetizers — let’s bring on the main course.

        And I still can’t understand why this one made the list. Then again, those chefs in Denmark at Noma serve weeds that are still in the pot and everyone thinks that is great. Maybe my age is creeping up on me.


  3. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    I just finished Gerard Woodward’s new novel and thought it was terrific. It ‘s a novel ostensibly about camofluers ( who knew?) in the war, but is a kafka-esque story of the impact of seemingly innocent events taken together to weave a nightmare scenario. I thought it eminently prize-worthy.


  4. Guy Savage Says:

    This sounded interesting until you got to the sect bit. Otherwise, up until that point, it sounded like a light, enjoyable read. As for the all the booker stuff, it never makes sense to me.


  5. Anokatony Says:

    It seems that the Booker should have waited until there were some strong U.S. novels before they started including them in their prize lists. They could have included ‘Euphoria’ by Lily King which would have held its own against any other novels this year.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Previous Booker juries have definitely made some odd choices, so I don’t think we can blame the U.S. for this decision. I thought The Blazing World was a decent choice and everything that I have read about Orfeo has been positive (I’ll be getting to it soon).

      As for Euphoria (which I had not heard about until your comment), I can’t find any U.K. reviews. While American authors are now eligible, the novel does have to have been published in a U.K. edition.


  6. Pat Says:

    I totally agree with your thoughts on this story. The first 50 pages had me chuckling but as the book progressed I found myself wondering what made the judges choose this book for the long list. Every time I picked it up I kept checking to see how many more pages I had to read before I would be finished reading it. I am very glad that my first read on the list was Orfeo .


  7. Kerry Says:

    I wasn’t much tempted by this one and am even less so now. I am all for comic and even frothy, but am not inclined to take any trouble to acquire this. The idea of a Ferris novel has never had much allure, so haven’t read any of his priors.

    Thanks for your always excellent Booker coverage.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I don’t think you’ll miss much by giving this a pass.

      Thanks for your kind words. I’ve slipped a little behind in review writing on Booker titles but should pick up the pace soon.


  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just read Lee’s review of this, which didn’t tempt me to it at all, and nor does yours so thank you both for that. It’s always good not to add to the TBR.

    The satire on social media doesn’t sound that sophisticated, and possibly a bit contrived, the religion thing is somewhat interesting but like your recipe analogy it sounds like there are too many disparate elements present. I like Brazilian and Eritrean food and would happily go to a restaurant for either, I’d even check out a Brazilian/Eritrean fusion restaurant which might after all be cool. Thrown in the Inuit though and there comes a point it just gets too much, or perhaps not enough of any one thing.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I don’t think this one would tempt you at all. There is some fun to it early on when Ferris is throwing all the balls in the air — when he started to focus on the pseudo-religious one ( the least promising as far as I was concerned) the novel became positively annoying.


  9. Biblibio Says:

    This sounds a lot more like Ferris’s The Unnamed (which I didn’t like) than Then We Came to the End (which I actually quite enjoyed). I kept feeling like The Unnamed had a lot of different threads and ideas that Ferris wanted to fit together in an innovative way, but it just wasn’t working. I was hesitant to try To Rise Again at a Decent Hour for fear that it would fall into the same traps – it seems my fears were justified and I won’t be reading it.

    As for the Booker… I’ll be honest, I have no idea how they judge anything. I’ve seen enough criticism of the books that were chosen and enough overwhelming praise for books that weren’t that I’m completely baffled by now. I’ll let more educated readers guess their reasoning, because I certainly don’t understand it…


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I didn’t read The Unnamed (mainly for the same reasons you are passing this one) so I can’t make direct comparisons. I think authors like Ferris do deserve credit for mixing together some unlikely streams — and it is inevitable that sometimes that does not succeed. For me, this one was a failure.


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