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.