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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?