Top Shelf in May: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Reviewed by Ben
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is Ferris’ third novel. His debut, Then We Came to the End, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award. The same year his second novel, The Unnamed, was released, Ferris was also chosen as one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of fiction writers. Needless to say, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was a much anticipated book indeed. I had first read Joshua Ferris’ short story, The Dinner Party, in The New Yorker before any of his novels. The story floored me with the cleanliness of its prose, how Ferris diagnosed the ailments of modern society in a way more consistent with a therapist or philosopher than a writer. Picking up his latest, I expected the same precision in language and keenness in human observation as I had found before. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour filled those expectations marvelously.
Our narrator, Paul O’Rourke, is many things. He is an avid Red Sox fan, an inhabitant of New York City, a dentist addicted to his phone and nicotine, and an atheist sympathetic towards the notion of God. Much of the story occurs within Paul’s dental practice and we are quickly introduced to his staff: Connie, his Jewish ex-girlfriend and office manager; Mrs. Convoy, the Catholic hygienist; Abby, the silent dental assistant. The dynamics of Paul’s office and life are disrupted when someone steals his identity and creates a website, a Facebook page, and Twitter account in Paul’s name. From these profiles, the culprit begins broadcasting a mysterious religious and ethnic identity which they claim the real Paul O’Rourke is part of. Outraged and captivated by this alternate persona, Paul falls further into the clutches of his me-machine. As the story proceeds, he begins to confront his past in order to understand himself, navigating the mistakes and misunderstandings he once committed which are as funny as they are cringe-inducing. From New York City to Israel, Ferris arranges a composition of modern society, the refrain of isolation and the remedies we use to assuage it returning again and again. Ferris captures our neurosis, the frightening questions we ask when confronted with a mirror held up to our own life, the filters we use to present ourselves to the world as something perhaps better than the real thing. Paul faces the temptation of belonging, of examining his place in the world, and whether or not that place holds any value. The results are less morose than one might expect.
Between lamenting the state of his patients’ oral hygiene and condemning the evil baseball empire that is the New York Yankees (perhaps some of my favorite passages as a Philadelphia sports fan), Ferris has provided us with an impeccably modern and cynical humor to accompany us on Paul’s quest. Whether it is exploring the politics of establishing a Wikipedia page or simply getting someone to floss, these were the moments that kept me invested in the story. The humor left me with optimism regarding Paul’s condition, a gleam of light peeking through the blinds of a dark room which hinted that there was still the potential for contentment. Amidst the sarcasm and cynicism, Ferris somehow renders a frightened earnestness that I could identify with as one among seven billion. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a critique and sonnet to the modern human, to the head-down worker and dreamer paralyzed by the chance of an inclement nightmare. Ferris ambitiously takes on the big questions regarding life and truth, leaving us a novel which acts as an answer with which we might be satisfied, if but for a little while.
Joshua Ferris will read from & sign his new novel here at BookPeople on Wednesday, May 21 at 7PM. You can pre-order signed copies of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour now via bookpeople.com. The book will be on our shelves May 13.