To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Joshua Ferris.

Ferris, Joshua. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Little, Brown, New York. 2014. Presume Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F; 11/14.

I made some pretty inspired notes on this unusual and occasionally quite moving book, but except for a couple of highlights in the Kindle I was using I can’t find them. So I’ll have to wing it mostly from memory. There is something disjointed and occasionally coarse about the main character and I guess inescapably therefore the author as well, but I found Ferris’s wading straight into big difficult topics, and a convincing description of a dark and troubled inner life impressive. Online commentary suggests that his first book Then We Came to the End may be better, and if it is it would certainly be worth reading because this one contains a lot of pretty good writing and interesting ideas.

Protagonist is Paul O’Rourke, a successful, exemplary, quite wealthy dentist (of all things). He has a not-particularly-unique existential-style atheist and disaffected life view, and although at first this seems just reasonable based on the examples he gives, it’s pretty hard to listen to that kind of thing over the length of a book without wishing he’d grow up and quit feeling sorry for himself. Dr. O’Rourke, Paul, however gets dragged into mysterious quicksand after somebody opens a website in his name and rapidly escalates his online persona into a tweeting social mediaphile preoccupied with religious issues. Paul gets angry and corresponds with the apparent prankster, to eventually discover that he is leader of an atheistic cult alleging to go back to Old Testament times, which holds as its central doctrine unbelief. Or doubt,  they call it, which would require a short step back from the sheer cliff of atheism and  would give “I don’t know” some room to maneuver.

Along the way we understand that Paul has been in love (“cunt gripped”. Now there is an nasty little construct that seems to me awkwardly out of character both for Paul and his creator) only three times. And each time the parents seemed to preoccupy him at least as much as the girl herself. It seems ultimately he couldn’t resist alienating the parents and family and losing the girlfriend in the process. This behaviour is mirrored in the life of the shadowy prankster, who practically became a rabbi while in love with the daughter of a devout observant Jew, only to tell his potential father-in-law that he didn’t believe in God.

The most emotionally disturbing thing in Paul’s life for me was his relationship with his mother, which intensified in dependency after the father committed suicide, resulting in Paul as a little boy continually calling out to his mother at night to make sure she was still awake. Little Paul was afraid that he, unable to sleep, would be the only person awake in the whole world, which would confirm intolerable dark loneliness. And this loneliness connects with an even more terrifying

feeling that (his) life, and the city’s, and the world’s every carefree winsome hour, were perfectly without meaning

which Paul suffers from as an adult insomniac.

There was a short time when I thought Paul’s relationship with the online prankster was going to develop into something semi-supernatural or at least fictionally historically fundamental to Judaism or something comparable, a la Umberto Eco. It didn’t, and if it had (and been handled in any ways short of  mastery) that might have deep-sixed the claim to emotional seriousness I think the book has.

I don’t find his exemplary dental practice relevant to any of the rest of his life. He reminds me a bit of Frank Bascombe in Independence Day (although he is a much more complex and credibly troubled character): somebody we are meant to feel sorry for but somehow don’t, quite.

I guess I’m left with a fragmented impression of this fragmented story. It’s too bad poor little Paul O’Rourke had a difficult childhood and I can identify with that. Also sad that he somehow felt unable to resist alienating the important religious parents of his girlfriends (I can’t identify with that). Tough also that he got dragged into this elaborate philosophy- and religion-oriented hoax, charismatic crank’s game, or whatever it was. In that I can see the embryo of an interesting plot which never quite hatches.

I think I’ll download the previous novel and see if it contains the same intriguing issues but feels less like something broke it and scattered the pieces all over the floor. 6.8/8.3.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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