Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading Notes: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

This review is number 3 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge. You can see links to the other two reviews at the bottom of this post.

Joshua Ferris is an author I have not previously encountered, which, by all accounts, might be seen as a bit of a modern-lit omission.

I have learned that he's the author of an apparently acclaimed comic novel, Then We Came to the End, which is a first person plural look at contemporary workplaces.  It's widely alleged to be very funny and insightful, and I can only plead the year of its publication (2007, aka The Year I Had Two Non-Sleeping Children Under Two Years of Age) in mitigation for having missed it originally.

That said, if Ferris's comic voice is largely the same as the one he displays in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, maybe it's not such a tragedy.

Because, despite the fact that this book is being widely touted as a mixture of hilarity and deep meaning (that over-used phrase "tour de force" is being bandied recklessly), I don't think it is all that successful overall, and to my mind, it's not actually super funny, although it does have moments of being amusing.

Being a Booker nominee, you will be unsurprised to learn that To Rise Again addresses the Big Important Themes of Life and What It Means - this is almost a given for Booker listers, although they all bring their own lens to the question. The Wake snarls at life through its shadowtongue dissection of a conquest, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves pulls off the feat of digging very deep into the ethics of being human while remaining essentially gentle, while the two other longlisters I have read (reviews coming!) both squint at existentialism through the prism of art - visual art in the case of The Blazing World, and music in the case of Orfeo.

To Rise Again takes a very different angle by probing at the essential meaningless of life, and the problem of belief / unbelief in the face of the inescapable reality of death, much as one worries at a sore tooth - which is entirely appropriate given that the narrator and protagonist, Paul O'Rourke, is a dentist in New York. Paul's pretty fearful, dreary life is upended when someone starts to impersonate him online, setting up a fake website for his dental practice and using it, as well as a fake Twitter account, to proselytise on behalf of a made-up religion, Ulmism, whose people are allegedly the surviving descendants of the Amalekites, a tribe named (briefly) in the Old Testament that were thoroughly wiped out by the people of Israel as they took possession of the land.

The central tenet of Ulmism is doubt - that one must doubt or deny the existence of God in order to live a fulfilled life. In this, it's set up as as antithetical to all other religious traditions, monotheistic or otherwise, and brought into kissing-counsinship with atheism, but it's a bit more complex that that, as the book reveals.

There is a lot of stuff in this book too about Judaism and anti-Semitism, and what it may or may not be. Some of Ferris's thoughts here seem to me to be a bit muddly as well, although he does give Connie Plotz, Paul's Jewish ex-girlfriend and his current practice manager, one of the most decisive lines in the book when she says, "The only people who get to decide what is anti-Semitic are Jews." Nonetheless, he keeps worrying at it like a bad back molar that won't shut up, and it gets uncomfortable in places - maybe intentionally, but it sits awkwardly with the rest of the book.

The thing about this book is that it's not at all an uninteresting premise, Paul is a convincing central character, and the supporting cast is competently executed on the whole (there are a few cardboard props, but I'll forgive that in a book that is so unapologetically One Man's Story). Moreover, some of the humour, especially in the first half of the book, is astute; Paul's one-sided conversations with his devoutly Catholic dental hygienist, Betsy Convoy, are sharply observed and pretty funny, and his contrapuntal obsession with the Red Sox and inability to care about actual sport are also well constructed.

As is usual for me, I enjoyed the professional detail - despite being dentally phobic myself, the descriptions of dental procedures added a bit of ballast to the story that it desperately needed, especially in the weaker second half. There are some pinpoint insights scattered throughout (the observations on what makes a religion rather than a cult are pretty sharp, as are Paul's eventual realisations around the difference between meaninglessness and meaningful-but-finite).

Overall, though, it's not enough to save this book from falling under the weight of its own central confusion. Humour often - always? - is the other face of tragedy, so it's not the mixing of serious themes with the funny that does it; it's that Ferris doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind if he is trying to make a case for "living in the now" or "laughing in the face of death" or "the journey is the destination" or "everything is shit, kill yourself now" or any one of seven or eight variations. At various times he deploys all of these motifs and more, and the result is a plot that eats its own tail and loses its not inconsiderable verities in a morass of mixed-up philosophising and half-carried-off jokes.

Did I enjoy it? I did; it was a sometimes-amusing and relatively quick read, and certainly engaging enough to carry me along. Do I think it should shortlist? I completely do not.

Other Man Booker longlist reviews:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake

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