Tuesday, December 30, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

It was perhaps inevitable, that in its frequent coming together with the "information age" that literary culture would eventually churn up a novel that was ostensibly on the button about our dependence on social media, ubiquitous connectivity, and ever more complex devices and that it would be hailed as a significant book about the way we live today. Equally inevitably, that that same book would get things so terribly, terribly wrong.

That was my conclusion after the first hundred pages of Joshua Ferris's 3rd novel "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour", which was unaccountably shortlisted for the Booker this first year of American eligibility. Paul O'Rourke is a successful New York dentist who has steadfastly refused the lures of the modern world - his practice doesn't even have a website. When one day one appears, followed by a Facebook page and Twitter feed also in his name it looks like we've got some savvy identity thriller.  When he eventually gets in touch with the unknown creator of the website things turn strange - for this has been their slightly unusual way of getting in touch with him to intrigue him about him being one of a small number of people with a pure bloodline making him an "Ulm", an early Old Testament tribe who have been forgotten by history. Rather than techno-thriller this is something with the weariness of a parodistic Dan Brown or Umberto Eco. First, though that digital element. So painstaking is Ferris in describing the takeover of O'Rourke's non digital presence that its painful to read to anyone who knows anything about the online world. Let alone the capitalisation of Internet throughout - here Ferris seems torn between being all modern and tech-savvy on the one hand and being crass enough for an older audience on the other, and it doesn't work at all. The tech-thriller angle is just a ruse, but here's the thing, it feels like it from the first, and its awkwardness gets out of hand - with Paul, our scabrous narrator talking about phones as "me machines" like a Saturday Night Live sketch from 1991 taking the piss out of mobile phones.

Even the post-ironicists haven't quite worked out how to "write the internet" - "Infinite Jest" was just about a pre-internet novel after all - yet it shouldn't be so hard. Douglas Coupland has been doing it brilliantly for years, Stephen King managed to come up with a credible web-enabled plot for his excellent "Mr. Mercedes" and David Eggars had enough handle on the psychology of technology in "The Circle" to make this novel seem lazy, and shoddy in comparison.

But though it takes a while, the novel slowly unwinds from its clunky beginning. A dentist is a fine character to have centre stage. He sees into human mouths rather than human souls, but in how we treat our teeth he can make any number of moral judgements. His own moral life is perplexingly narrow, like a sitcom character, aware of the multitudes of opportunities on offer in New York, but stuck with the rituals of watching the Friday night game, and the three co-dependent women in his practice, one of whom, Jewish Connie, he was in love with and has only recently stopped seeing.

O'Rourke is that other everyman of American fiction, the curmudgeon who can't quite understand why the world is so shit, why he himself is so unhappy, and why people can't just leave him  to be unhappy and go on about the world being shit. There's a Heller-esque feel to the story at times, but I'm more thinking, Bruce Gold, the jaundiced Jewish professor of "Good as Gold" rather than "Catch-22." Too much of the early part of the novel is a series of funny, but slightly stale riffs. Describing his chequered love life O'Rourke talks about being a man who has several times been "cunt gripped", a horribly unedifying description of his love dependency, where, not content with falling for a particular girl, he also has to fall for her family and - bizarrely - their religion as well.
Is this then a novel about the lost gentiles love of the Jewish ideal? Partly so, it seems. Not for the first time I'm puzzled by hip Young American writers obsession with religion - for here its centre stage - a novel about belief that calls to mind certain bits of Michael Chabon for instance. How strange that we have a novel about a non-Jewish dentist who is an unbeliever who becomes obsessed with finding whether or not he belongs to a "cult" of other ancient unbelievers who may or may not have been the sworn enemy of the Jews. If this seems parochial its because of that trope of so much American fiction of "finding oneself" being so writ large. Given we only have O'Rourke's take on things we wonder if he is indeed writing these letters and emails to himself in a kind of "Fight Club" style dual-identity.

As the novel unwounds, the riffs keep on coming, on ancient religious lore and on his lost faith in the Boston Red Sox ever since they've broken the habit of a lifetime and become winners. Some of this is undoubtedly funny, once you get past how frequently annoying it is. One of the problems is O'Rourke, who is not just insensitive but crassly so. He's as jaded as a latterday Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney character but there's a cynical, nasty side which seems to come from him as much as from the society he's part of. He's clearly still traumatised by his father's suicide - yet we get to know nothing about the why? nothing about the man his father was - and therefore this quest for meaning feels hollow. There's more humanity and humour in a single episode of "30 Rock" for instance - yet here we've three hundred pages of mordantly humourous angst, paranoiac conspiracy theory and dental practice comedy. The latter of these three furnishes the novel with most of its strengths..

As the conspiracy theory takes hold - and O'Rourke meets others who have been identified as Ulms, the novel improves conspicuously and the last third would have made a Paul Auster like New York novella - but even here the over-egging of O'Rourke's (and maybe Ferris's) obsessions, reminds me a little of the untrammelled nature of Ned Beaumont, clever enough, but to what purpose? Once the internet (with or without a capital I) recedes into the background there's less plainly bad about the book and the dental comedy is suitably grim but fiendish. Having read that strange religious dystopia, Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet" earlier in the year, it falls incredibly flat in comparison, and it seems a novel struggling to bring in big themes whilst wanting to retain a flippancy. New York - the world, even - recede into tiny worlds as a result of this - and the narrowness of the novel despite these big themes is both a strength and a weakness providing with a claustrophobia that fills well with the brightly lit dental studio at the same time as making it all seem a little irrelevant and unbelievable.

For a British reader, the endless pages on Boston Red Sox baseball are enough to make me think this is  a novel that shouldn't have crossed the Atlantic never mind got a berth in the Booker shortlist, yet its the obsession on antique faiths which seems oddest about the book. Neither fish nor fowl I'm not sure who it will please, other than those Booker judges, who I think must have liked its traditionalism (that Heller-esque quality) whilst pretending to applaud its (faux) modernity. Even on its own terms, as a story about a middle aged man's breakdown in the complexities of the modern world it falls down badly, especially when compared to something as masterful as A.M. Homes. 

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