The Book We're Talking About: 'To Rise Again At A Decent Hour' By Joshua Ferris

05/13/2014 11:52 am ET

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour
by Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown and Company, $26.00
Publishes May 13, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:

In his absorbing debut, Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris pondered the grim lives of office-dwellers in the midst of an economic malaise -- the search for meaning, the clinging to a fragile common purpose and identity, the growing sense of disillusionment with their routinized lives. Told in the first-person plural and laced with dark humor, the novel portrayed a communal search for meaning in modern life.

Seven years later, Ferris’s third novel also prods at the question of what we’re all doing here, but from a far more isolated perspective. His narrator, Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke, D.D.S., is living a quietly miserable life as a successful dentist, tortured Red Sox fan, and inveterate loner. His social world seems to be circumscribed by the walls of his office. Even his patients are generally treated as walking mouths: “Cosmetic consultations and a gum graft and one hideously black tongue.”

Paul creates his own loneliness, as he fades out on friends, sabotages romantic relationships, gives up on hobbies (other than watching the Red Sox alone in his apartment). Yet that loneliness also eats away at him; he’s drawn inexorably toward the same sorts of communities he resists joining. He eagerly jumps into relationships and thirsts for acceptance into his girlfriends’ families, but ultimately finds himself undercutting his own attempts to bond with the women and their families. He’s fascinated by his girlfriends’ religious traditions, but adamantly refuses to pay the price of belief for admission.

Though he, like all of us, clings to his smartphone (which he refers to as a “me-machine” throughout the book), Paul also blames it, and the Internet, for so much of the isolation he perceives as the illness of modern life. And so he eschews the social mediasphere -- until a mysterious stranger begins to build a public persona for Paul online: a website for his dentist practice, a Twitter account, commenter accounts on message boards. This hijacked version of Paul also loves the Red Sox and is an attentive dentist, but unlike the real guy, Internet Paul seems to be proselytizing for some sort of religion.

As Paul attempts to track down the source of his identity theft woes, his online presence spreads, and he learns more and more about the obscure (and possibly fraudulent) ancient people and religious sect for which his bizarro-self is advocating. Despite himself, he finds that he’s somehow drawn to the messages from his other self, and the hope for belonging that they offer.

Ironically, it’s the very Internet Paul derides for disconnecting people that draws him into a potential opportunity for community. This identity theft narrative touches on both our fears for the modern web -- that our identity will become separated from ourselves, even pilfered -- and our greatest hopes for it -- that our identity will be somehow magnified, burnished. That it will separate us from others, but maybe bring us closer to them. These deeply complicated emotions make this plot device particularly intriguing.

It’s when Ferris pulls in more traditional agents for discovery (such as a pretty, enigmatic “research assistant” named Clara) that the novel risks sliding into the bland. These investigative figures are ephemeral and unexplored -- most likely because, as Ferris admits in a recent Slate interview, he slashed hundreds of pages of more traditional detective novel material in the course of writing To Rise Again. As these tropes are the least interesting part of the book, this was likely a wise decision, but the hanging threads leave an aura of incompletion.

Ferris’s trademark blend of dark satire and ominous absurdity suits his subject, and his focus on one character allows him to perform a psychological excavation of his subject in conjunction with his examination of modern life. Rather than a straightforward investigation of the conspiracy behind his social media takeover, we are left only with questions -- about Paul, about the sect that disrupts his cozily sad existence, and about the very underpinnings of the communities that lend meaning to our lives. Ferris leaves it up to the reader to untangle these threads, and the result is a stimulating, bittersweet read.

What other reviewers think:
The Wall Street Journal: "As he grows more intrigued by the cult that has co-opted his name, Mr. Ferris's novel slows its manic riffing to become something both stranger and sadder. It's a pleasure watching this young writer confidently range from the registers of broad punchline comedy to genuine spiritual depth."

The Houston Chronicle: "Joshua Ferris’ third novel, “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” reminds us that even existential suffering can prove both charming and hilarious — at least as long as we aren’t the ones doing the cosmic bleeding."

Who wrote it?
Joshua Ferris has written three novels, including Then We Came To The End and The Unnamed. Then We Came To The End was named one of The New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of the Year,” received a PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel, and was long-listed for The Guardian’s First Book Award. In 2010, Ferris was included on The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list.

Who will read it?
Readers who enjoy witty or satirical fiction. Also, those who enjoy thought-provoking reads about life and its meaning.

Opening lines:
“The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate--where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.”

Notable passage:
“It was really that ‘we’ I wanted more than anything else. For all my proud assertions of self, I really only wanted to be smothered in the embrace of an inclusive and coercive singular ‘we.’ I wanted to be sucked up, subsumed into something greater, historical, eternal. One of the unit. One with the clan.”

Rating, out of ten:
9. Ferris entertains with unsettling satire while cleverly illuminating what lies at the foundations of modern community and identity.

Read an excerpt of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour:

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