To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris

I think this post should start with an apology. We have reached the morning of the Man Booker shortlist announcement with a mere two longlist reviews on the blog. I agree. Disappointing. I have tried to make up for this with inspiring baking recipes and cool literary products out there, but sometimes, all you want to see is a book review. I understand. So please do accept my heartfelt apology. I know you haven’t heard from Perks in a while either. She’s still with us, but has been incredibly busy too – I’m sure she’ll explain when she returns soon!

In a last ditch effort to redeem myself, I’m sneaking in another review before the announcement. This weekend, I finished Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Ferris’ third novel that is billed to:

‘cut to the very heart of modern existence: the meaning of life, the certainty of death and the importance of good oral hygiene’39.Joshua Ferris-To Rise Again At A Decent Hour cover

The final of these points is true. Never have I felt more conscious of my own dental regime than whilst reading this novel. To illustrate the overwhelming emphasis that Ferris put on the importance of oral hygiene (driving protagonist’s Paul O’Rourke’s profession as a talented and successful dentist) – as I completed my weekly trip to the supermarket, I had to replenish my own mouth care supplies – new toothbrush, different toothpaste, floss – the lot. I determine to go to my dentist and demonstrate that I am doing all I can to keep my mouth in top condition. Paul would be proud. 

Anyway.

The book follows Paul as he continues to reluctantly bumble along as a New Yorker, unashamedly support the Red Sox (until they start winning their games, after which he becomes rather disaffected with the whole thing) and fulfil his work as a busy dentist. But life has lost any further meaning for him. His mind is repeatedly drawn to reminisce and, mainly, regret his past decisions – namely in matters of love – and to question the optimism of those around him. He’s distracted, aloof and detached from modern life.

When a patient, still woozy from his dose of anaesthetic gas (tooth extraction), informs Paul that he is an ‘Ulm‘, it seems an harmless, if odd, word. But when Paul, always one for keeping his identity hidden online and mainly restricted to Red Sox forums, suddenly develops a prominently controversial online identity through Twitter, Facebook and even a new website for his practice, it is clear that being an ‘Ulm’ has far greater significance for his impersonator. Turns out an ‘Ulm’ is a descendent of a Biblical tribe (the Amalekites) who were almost completely exterminated the Israelites… but not quite.

And so Paul’s quest begins. But the case of identifying his impersonator becomes almost a side-story as lengthy passages on religion, culture and identity dominate this novel. It’s a difficult book to ‘define’ – the Telegraph call it ‘a comic theological thriller’, though it isn’t a gripping page-turner that you associate with the thriller genre. It is certainly funny at times, the ‘stool sample‘ blurt causing me to laugh sharp and loud to the surprise of my fellow train travellers, and its exploration of the nature of belief and disbelief is intelligently written. But I felt there was something lacking – it didn’t strike me as a fulfilled novel. At times, it was threatened by its own weighty notions. The numerous diatribes distracted from the flow and sense of purpose in the novel which meant that I found it incredibly difficult to pick it up again, my sense of direction lost amongst the history of the Amalekites.

I can see why the book made the longlist: Ferris has written an impressively profound and inventive book, there a moments of comic genius and he addresses some difficult theological issues. But overall, I don’t consider it to be a shortlist title (she says, having not read the majority of the longlist yet). I finished the novel wanting more – its story was lost amongst the frequent, dense digressions which made for a lack in momentum. This is a dangerous call to make so close to the announcement, but there it is. We’ll see if the judges agree!

The plan now on is to make sure we have read the shortlist titles (hopefully before the winner is announced – I am on holiday next week so that should help!) and get all those reviewed here. Then we shall return to the other longlisted titles, as promised, with the (dis)advantage of hindsight.

Would love to hear what you thought of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Remember to floss!

*UPDATE* So the judges didn’t agree and it is on the shortlist. I’m slightly disappointed with this decision but, as I said, I will have to read the others first to have a full perspective.  Think I’ll read Howard Jacobson’s J next!

– Franny

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