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?
The 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.