To Rise Again at a Decent Hour; book review


Joshua Ferris’ first novel,  Then We Came to the End, was narrated in the first person plural; his second, The Unnamed, centred on a character who wound up in a bitter Socratic dialogue with his own body. With all that in mind, readers who note the conventional middle-aged dentist at the heart of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and hope for a more stable sense of character may initially feel some relief.

Dr Paul C O‘Rourke – “Dentist. Professional. Owner of real estate” – is the sort of man who consistently uses the term “thunderbox” to refer to the loo. He is prone to “curried flatulence” and beset with “valid fears of autoerotic asphyxiation”. In the book’s early pages, he sketches out the basics of a conventionally numbed existence whose most notable features are obsessive sports fandom, an unfortunate tendency to refer to what might be love as being “cunt-gripped”, and an abiding regret at kitting out his practice without a private office. His concerns are made to seem small, his world deliberately circumscribed: “A sane person doesn’t stick around in the hopes of making a dent,” he observes, doing a bit of reluctant pro bono work in India. “A sane person takes the next plane home.”

Then he starts emailing himself, and his self tells him: “Your name is O’Rourke. What does this mean to you ...? Do you feel something is missing? Does it gnaw at you at night?” We are back, it seems, in the first person plural. Things soon get weird.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is ostensibly about dentistry and the internet, but it is in fact about neither. This is at least in part a relief, since the bits that do consider the isolating tendencies of a life online are the least insightful passages in the book. Paul’s discovery of his avatar is a motor for another sort of novel, rather than an end in itself. “Where does this idea of greater connection come from?” he fumes. “I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected.” But the truth is that his social network has never really done the work he needs it to. And, as his peculiar new circumstances activate his depression and his tendency to reminisce, in particular about the premature loss of his father, it becomes obvious that his technophobia is only a convenient fiction.

Paul’s alter-ego creates a website for his dental practice that appears entirely conventional but for the mystifying presence of opaque passages of scripture; ultimately, though, the consequences that flow from it are experienced in largely analogue terms. We watch Paul descend into obsession, checking his iPhone (clunkily referred to as a “me-machine” throughout) obsessively at the expense of his patients, his practice, and his relationships with the women who make it run effectively, one of them his yearned-for ex, Connie.

When Paul sketches out his affair with Connie, who is Jewish, we see that like every one of the relationships that have exercised such a visceral hold on him, it offered something beyond sex and companionship: it offered membership of a tribe. “There’s about four hundred of them,” he explains, “while in my family, there was just the three of us, and then, kaplow, just the two.” Meanwhile, his online tormentor dangles the hope that Paul might, after all, find somewhere to belong. In those two developments, Ferris’s real concern presents itself: can other people salve our loneliness? Or does their presence simply add a layer of irony?

This is tough stuff, but Paul is a winning enough narrator to make it a delight. Given to abrupt changes of register – thunderbox, kaplow – and wild, unselfconscious digressions, he hurries us through an ever stranger and more complicated novel by antic force of will; he is funny, and while his field of vision might be narrow, he is exceptionally good at hauling interesting things into it. Every once in a while, he has a moment of quiet, heartbreaking insight, blessed betrayals of the mundane that just make the stakes of his battle with himself all the higher. “Love makes you noble,” he observes. “So what if it’s self-directed? So what if, eventually, as love fades, we revert, like the lottery winner and limb loser alike, to our base selves?”

In Then We Came to the End, Ferris showed that this sort of crowd-pleasing insight is the stuff that he finds easy. In The Unnamed, he shied away from that success, aiming instead for a squiffy sort of realism that sometimes seemed to deliberately squander his natural gift. Happily, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour finds a way to reconcile his talent and his ambition. Compelling but never cheap, inventive but never obscure, if he succumbs to a Hollywood ending here, we shouldn’t hold it too sternly against him: in the preceding 300 pages, he has secured his status as exactly the sort of mainstream literary novelist American fiction needs.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London