A man is full of things you simply cannot tweet.
I’m not sure, after reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014), how serious Joshua Ferris takes identity theft, dentistry, contemporary malaise on an increasingly, incomprehensibly abundant planet, or even the Boston Red Sox. It doesn’t matter: the book works as a substantiated Spalding Grayesque tirade. The author does seem to care about people and their plight, and the reader is hardly short changed. But does the book work as a successful Booker-worthy novel? Not especially.
Paul O’Rourke is a dentist in a pretty auspicious (“just off Park Avenue”) part of New York, but he’s juggling a fair few things even before a key plot development is brought in. He doesn’t sleep too well: the endless possibilities unfolding outside his window (outside his life) keep him from the Zs that might subdue his neurotic night terrors. He inwardly rails at what he sees as a series of shameful, insincere attempts, throughout his life, to fit in with people in order to belong. He doesn’t belong, as he sees it, due to not believing in anything other than his team, the Red Sox, and even they let him down by winning the World Series and failing to comfort him with symbiotic failure.
He also definitely doesn’t believe in God and is too busy fretting about life to experience it: the highlight of his week has him holing up in his apartment to watch the Red Sox game taping it (yes, VHS), labeling it and heading off to bed. He otherwise considers all those experiences the city lays on that he isn’t sampling.
I’d been watching the Red Sox for so long that not to watch them was to stand in the middle of my living room and wonder what to do with myself. Oh, there was lots to do. There was more to do at that moment than there had been at any moment in the history of the world. And there was no city with more to offer than New York City. I could grab a slice. I could eat sushi. I could order a sheep’s-milk cheese at a wine bar and drink Pinot until bohemianism and Billie Holliday worship saturated my soul and I was drunk, drunk, drunk. I could go down to the Brooklyn Inn and have a stout. There were half a dozen bars along the way where I could stop for a drink before reaching the Brooklyn Inn. There were bodegas and Korean grocers where I could shop for fresh organic fruits and vegetables. I could sit at the bar of the new Italian joint with a plate of meatballs and a bottle of wine. Cask beer was a new craze. I could have a pint of cask beer.
Further into this litany of potential distractions, Paul realizes that most of what New York has to offer involves, as he sees it, stupefying himself with food and drink, before moving on to the few remaining options, which he also quickly talks himself out of, reluctant to face the melee, the queues, the people who will surely “wonder why you are alone with yourself on a Friday night. I was not going to spend my Friday night being gawked at.”
He’s not a dentist accidentally: he has an “essential, reluctant, ineradicable, inhibited core” and it’s entirely fitting that he should spend his days with silent, powerless, supine patients who will hardly bother or challenge him nor interrupt his inner-ponderings. And his assistant Abby is also a perfect accompaniment: masked and silent throughout, a pair of gesticulating eyebrows her only overt characterization.
A more vocal presence amongst the core dental staff is Mrs. (Betsy) Convoy (more of a Mr. Miyagi figure, a scornful mentor), who usefully happens to be a devout Catholic, staunchly secure in her belief that all is not only meaningful but that Paul need only listen as opposed to use her as a sounding board from which he can reassure himself that he’s right to remain fraught and secular. They have some amusing knockabout exchanges as brusque fatalism meets bemused chastisement and indefatigable proselytising, and the following is a fair representation of the yammering, barbed-but-benevolent tenor throughout (and why the non-yammering parts that try for troubling miss their mark: they don’t fit).
She’d say, “What do you have against other people?” And I’d say, I’d be sitting at the front desk, in one of the swivel chairs at the front desk, doing paperwork or something, and I’d look up from the paperwork, and I’d say, “What do I have against other people? I have nothing against other people.” And she’d say, “You alienate yourself from society.” And I’d say, I’d turn physically in the chair and look at her, and I’d say, “Who alienates himself from society?” “You don’t have a website,” she’d say. “And you refuse to create a Facebook page. You have no online presence. Barry Hallow says — ” “And for this I’m being accused of alienating myself from society? Because I don’t have a Facebook page?” “All I’m trying to say is that Barry Hallow encourages everyone to have an online presence. An online presence guarantees more business. It’s proven. That’s all I’m trying to say.” “No, that’s not all you’re trying to say, Betsy,” I’d say. “That’s not at all all you’re trying to say. If it was, you wouldn’t have accused me of alienating myself from society.” “You have misunderstood my intentions,” she’d say. “I think you have wilfully misunderstood me.” “I don’t have anything against other people, Betsy. Do I understand other people? No. Most people I don’t understand. What they do mystifies me. They’re out there right now, playing in the fields, boating, whatever. Good for them. You know what, Betsy? I’d love to boat with them. Yeah, let’s boat! Let’s eat shrimp together!”
After setting the scene and sketching in the other main proxy-familial foil, Connie, the receptionist, an ever-present reminder of his relationship failings (theirs collapsed due to his reluctance to become a father), Ferris brings in the ‘issue’: identity and the assumption of his identity for initially mysterious ends.
(Paul at least believes in baseball (which plays a huge role in the book and closes it out: a nice way of loading the bases, as it were) and frets OCDishly over his beloved Red Sox, helplessly tethered to their (and sport’s) vagaries of unpredictability, but also to a cause, to some manner of meaning.)
Watching the games is happily all-consuming: he disappears during them, freed from the nagging elliptical voices getting ever louder, and such behavior serves as further re-emphasis of his lack: lack of anything else to do, lack of the wherewithal or want to let this lifetime rankling ritual go, lack of fortitude as he submits to whatever their fate is, lack of a concrete enough identity that someone might not easily pinch it and start tweeting in his name. And then erect a (pretty decent) company website featuring every staff member’s profile, including his . . . and eventually post gnomic excerpts from a mysterious and potentially fabricated religious credo, as well as question Paul, as Paul, about Paul’s identity, and suggest that he’s a descendant of a marginal and forgotten tribe of blighted wanderers.
The posts continue to go up in his name, and, after consulting an “expert” in such matters, discovers that there’s really very little he can do about it, at least at this stage. He locates the source of the missives and interrogates them (whoever they are) as to the meaning of it all, thus entering a back and forth that will comprise plenty of the first half (and easily most successful section) of the book.
As all this is unfolding — nightmarish misappropriation of his name online which he is constantly galled by as Connie or Mrs Convoy grill him about the latest post, not particularly sure early on that it isn’t in fact him putting the various messages up, which naturally further compounds his ire — a billionaire banker, Mercer, requests a meeting. He too has been led to believe that he’s maybe also a descendant of “the Ulm,” and because “making money is a waste of time” he’s doubtless looking for a bit of substance in his life also, and a way of salvaging meaning from a world he’s already, in his field, conquered. There’s nothing like not really knowing who you are, then definitely not knowing who you really are, then possibly discovering you might, in any case, be someone else altogether, and not only that, but a distantly-related member of a historically airbrushed collective, to stave off existential angst.
He sets someone called Sookhart — a frontsman for a “bookseller and antiquarian” and a handy expert in such matters — to find out more about this deeply unlikely maligned and forgotten race, and this will later improbably lead to a nice but unconvincing resolution as to who Paul is, with added baseball.
In the meantime he’s still wrestling, as well as with having his identity nicked, which would be enough to put a crimp in most of our days, with being lonely, mulling over the string of failed relationships behind him (and quite conceivably in front of him) and believing in nothing beyond a need to belong, although not to a church, as he doesn’t believe in the existence of God, but to a family, as he has attempted in the past, disastrously: so desperate has he been to shuck off his nightmare family history that he overdoes the ingratiation factor by a huge margin in order to “fit in.” The result of his over-zealous dispensation with his own views and the assumption of a guise meant to mirror that of those successfully inhabiting a secure, mutually supportive unit being horribly cringe-worthy, Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque moments of inappropriate comment, unsuitable, flubbed jokes and withering dismissal. He fools no-one, with his cobbled-together interest in Jewish historical arcane, particularly himself, and frets, years later, about such yearning failures.
He’s also haunted by thoughts of mortality and time’s relentless hand etc. He once, to be specific, entertained thoughts about buying a puppy, but even that was a fruitless prospect, as puppies inevitably become dogs and then die. Additionally, he tries to revive the halcyon days of people-watching at the mall, but they fall flat, and the place just exacerbates his melancholia. Pottery Barn doesn’t do it for him as it always used to: what was once a home from desolate home, with its “wicker baskets and scented candles, the brushed-silver picture frames” now feels “ersatz and mass produced”. Even The Beatles are ruined: Rubber Soul, which first time around offered such a soul-twanging thrill, is now robbed of its allure. He’s heard it hundreds of times but it tantalizes him again with the prospect of his benevolently bestowing it upon an unwitting and uninitiated fellow shopper for vicarious rewards.
That doesn’t work either and it’s all down to the sad fact of him being unable to claw back the years to when he sat watching the game with his dad, before the latter’s suicide. He wants to be nine again, just prior to that tragic detonation of his life and his belief in the world. We’re at a pivotal point where he’s going to have to face it all and resolve it, somehow, and stop burying his disappointments for them to resurface en masse and freight his every atom, ruin yet more relationships and blight his ability to sit still without his myriad demons assailing him.
He’s no fan of mobile phones (“me-machines”). They’re not so much a symptom of contemporary isolation as a haven for the ignorant, the babyish and the self-obsessed, and he’s all three and doesn’t hide the fact. In referring to the mobile phone as a “me-machine” he thankfully opts out of essaying their pervasive links with the decline of humanity etc and assumes the kind of gently scathing position that seems to be his forte. He’s most comfortable (as I was reading this) when affably judgmental and not grasping for gravitas.
The day after I engaged Sookhart, an investment banker came in by the name of Jim Cavanaugh. Even the bankers of Wall Street look like infants when they are reclined in the chair and bibbed in blue. It would not be unreasonable to pick them up and rock them in your arms, if that had been part of the early training.
He smelled good. I thought I detected hints of cardamom and white birch. Men like Cavanaugh, in the financial institutions and law firms, always come to my chair floral with designer scents and aftershaves. I pictured these emissions competing, on the molecular level, in a bloody, feral melee with their peers in every conference room and hallway cluster, every private office and chartered plane. One whiff of Cavanaugh and I had no doubt that his priey little eaus strolled from the battlefield undiluted and triumphant.
In such a mode, as a less acerbic Sam Lipsyte, the book slips down easily. When simply allowing Paul to anecdotally substantiate his psychology, we get a real sense of a voice, a time and a man. I cared, to an extent, about this guy struggling with the usual bedevilments. When Ferris flips back, as he is sadly wont to do often, into the “serious” bits (and by “serious” I mean those bits where you, as a reader, straighten your tie and understand that the “funny bits” have come to an end and the ‘serious’ sections have returned, only: I couldn’t, honestly, have cared less about the Ulm or the extended plight of belonging that was ultimately a tired analogy for Paul’s state of mind, or his quest for the truth in this matter. I found Paul a likeable man, and I sympathized with his plight re: his derailed childhood and his incessant quibbles and crestfallen fulminating, as a comic character in a middlingly serious romp. I couldn’t, though, take the ‘serious’ bits remotely seriously, feeling as I did that they were where this writer had slipped out of his comfort zone and into ‘serious fiction’ mode) and the real reason for him having his online identity stolen.
I selfishly just wanted Paul to sink once more into a Red Sox reverie or recollect another Shadenfreude-heavy disaster. The general tone of the book — enjoyably glib, glossily ribald, irreverent but not inhospitable — is too likeably established for us to comfortably segue into sober contemplation of existential crises. As with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the reach of this is compromised by the ceiling of beneficence the prose style terminally imposes.
The laughter in the dark levels of a Something Happened by Joseph Heller — what you might imagine Ferris is really after — are never achieved, as Ferris it too keen to see the best in everything and can’t quite bring himself to be coruscating enough to truly hit hard. There are many fine comic digressions but Ferris too often pulls his punches far too early and ends up passing them off as clumsy and unorthodox (and weak) high fives. The book runs up a head of acerbic steam and then fizzles out to gently satirical. It dallies with serious intent and then plays it too safe.
The suicide of Paul’s father whilst he was still only a young boy is unquestionably affecting: the suicide of a billionaire banker is a reach for topicality that feels like a middle-ranking comic talent pushing for magnitude. There is no undercurrent of disquiet necessary for subsequent spirals into genuinely troubling fictional areas: there is instead stapled-on, soapy portentousness.
What To Rise Again at a Decent Hour isn’t is a deserving Booker Prize winner. It does, as did Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, have plenty to recommend it: extended, adroitly sustained comic set pieces, much wry, thoughtful ontological commentary and plenty of well-drawn, empathetic characters. It’s Nick Hornby with smart pills or Jess Walter with more zing and less elegy. It’s a novel-length outburst of good-natured dyspepsia and about 200 of its 330 pages of far-from-original neurotic posturing fly by. But it hedges its bets and tries to reach, ultimately, beyond itself and ends up falling between the gaps in its own fragile, hasty-looking bridgework.
Ferris commits too many pages to a literary Jongleurs routine to introduce any robust potential for serious comment into proceedings. The “one eye on heaven” he ends with has always been on a certain type of reader and certain middling, decent-selling place in the fictional landscape. His other eye, surely, wasn’t on any literary prizes, though (atheist) AC Grayling has clearly cast both of his more admiringly than did I over this uneven, though often very funny trifle.