As far as I was concerned, Joshua Ferris was – still – a new and exciting talent. I read his debut, Then We Came to the End, some years ago and thought it was clever and funny. I read his follow-up, The Unnamed, and whilst I remember being surprised at how different it was to his debut, still liked it a great deal – in fact, there remains a bit of a squabble in the back of my mind as to which book I like the most. But we can be fairly certain I liked them both a lot. And then we came to To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour concerns one Dr Paul O’Rourke, a dentist with a successful practice on Park Avenue. Paul is somewhat troubled. He isn’t happy. He doesn’t feel like he is ‘in’ on all of the things that everyone else is ‘in’ on. Some days he wants an in. Some days, when he gets frustrated, for example, by the celebrities who appear on the front of magazines – celebrities he has never heard of – he drives his employees mad. Paul, we learn, can be somewhat faddish and somewhat irritable. And then he discovers that someone has created a website in his name, a website that features curious religious stories where his bio should be. And that’s not all. Someone is being him on Facebook. Someone is tweeting in his name.
Ah so, you might think, this is an identity theft novel in the vein of TC Boyle’s Talk Talk. Not quite. The key aspect of the above information is ‘curious religious stories’. What To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is is a novel about religion. Initially, a novel about how a person who classifies themselves as an atheist struggles with his own atheism in the face of the comforts (and it should be said questions) provided by religion. Paul once dated his office manager Connie (and he still finds her attractive when she looks at him a certain way, or doesn’t look at him; when her nose doesn’t remind him of her father at any rate) – Connie is Jewish, comes from a family of Jews and when they were dating (Paul brings us up to speed) he tried his best to love the Jewish family he thought he wanted to be part of – to the extent that they were all a bit irritated by him. Ditto the Catholic girl he dated before Connie. Paul – he explains – has a tendency to become ‘cunt-gripped’; by which he means to say that he loses all sense of himself in the first full flush of feeling like he is in love. The question (the questions) religion presents zing about, remaining unanswered, but frequently mulled. Paul is a frequent muller and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour sometimes feels like a somewhat circular, somewhat repetitive examination of the same narrow plot of ground.
But of course it’s not just established religions that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour mulls over. The person who is tweeting and Facebooking in Paul’s name (and there is a person, despite the fact that almost everyone around him wonders whether Paul is the person who is actually tweeting and Facebooking in a slightly anti-Semitic way) is part of a religious group called the Ulms – and he thinks that Paul is an Ulm too – and also a guy called Mercer, a billionaire. They are all Ulms. Paul and Mercer have trouble believing it and each expend a certain amount of energy trying to discover if the Ulms ever existed. Oh yes and there is baseball too. Paul loves baseball. He spends a fair bit of time explaining how much he loves baseball – in particularly the Red Sox. He loves the Red Sox. And then when the novel gets going he forgets about the Red Sox until one of the characters tells him he has forgotten all about the Red Sox. And then he loves them again for a bit. And then – well, I’ll let you find out what happens to his love of the Red Sox.
A quick digression at this point. I used to really like a writer called Steven Sherrill. He wrote two novels – The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break and Visits from the Drowned Girl – that I love. If you like dark, comedic slices of Americana you could do a whole lot worse than check both of those out. They are both fine, fine novels. A third novel, The Locktender’s Daughter, was never released in the UK but because I liked Sherrill’s first two novels so much, I tracked it down. And, whilst it was a fine novel, I thought this novel is too American for me. It was a kind of novel that (I felt) didn’t travel. Reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I got the same feeling. This is a book that doesn’t travel. Or at least doesn’t reach me. It’s too baseball-y, for starters. Which is weird considering I’ve read DeLillo novels about baseball and Philip Roth novels about baseball. I don’t mind baseball references. But there’s something insular about Ferris’ baseball references (such that I started to feel pretty much the way Dr Paul feels about celebrities). What’s more, the circularity of Paul O’Rourke’s inner world is a little annoying. Just as his colleagues get annoyed and irritated with him, so too did I. As you read, you understand that the novel is comedic – it’s written in that slightly hyperbolic comedic way – but it isn’t often very funny.
Which brings us back to the start of this review. I thought that Ferris had written two novels which were championed and celebrated and successful. The instant you dip your toe into the online space, however (which I did to see if I was alone in feeling frustrated with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) you realise that there are people who didn’t like Then We Got to the End, people who were alarmed (honestly alarmed!) by the difference between the first book and the second book and people for whom Ferris isn’t an exciting new talent. There were also established critical organs who didn’t really get along with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour too. What all of this online chatter did was to: reaffirm that, you know, I think Ferris is a good writer (because I’d read what all of these people thought of his other two books and think no, I disagree, that was clever/funny/whatever it was); and confirm that I wasn’t perhaps the biggest fan of his latest book (because the things I didn’t like, didn’t think were funny, didn’t feel much of anything but irritation about were also the things that other people didn’t think were funny, didn’t feel much of anything but irritation about). To this reader, reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour felt a little like reading Operation Shylock (in that it felt like a book by a writer you like that you thought didn’t quite match up to the rest of their work) or the latter portions of James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have (where you think – I was with you and enjoying myself but now I’m not with you and not enjoying myself). Undoubtedly it’s a modern novel, engaging with the modern novel, but it doesn’t do as good a job of engaging with the modern world as something like, say, The Circle by Dave Eggers does.
Any Cop?: As far as we are concerned, this is the first real blip on Ferris’ career. A disappointment.