Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a literary novel about a man in his late thirties searching for meaning of life and his own place in the world.
Paul O’Rourke, a successful dentist in Manhattan, is a man of contradictions: he’s cynical and self-centered, but he genuinely cares about his patients; he’s an atheist, but he’s drawn to religious people; he’s a huge Red Sox fan, but he gets upset about the team’s major victories; he feels aversion to the Internet, but he is obsessed with his smart phone.
Suffering from insomnia, Paul stares at the ceiling night after night, pondering such issues as his perception of himself and the perception of him by other people, as well as asking such questions as: When you meet a person for the first time, how do you present yourself to them? Do you show them your true self? When you fall in love with someone, how much of yourself do you share with that person? What if you lose your identity to them?
(Don’t we all ask these questions too?)
Paul searches for answers because he’s been unfortunate (and thus, insecure) in love. Growing up poor and fatherless since he was nine, he craves for a warm, loving family. That’s why each time he falls for a girl, he falls in love with her parents too, and he wants their acceptance and love in return. But he tries too hard to be loved—to the point that his efforts backfire.
Well, it’s bad enough that all those questions keep Paul awake at night, but then he finds out that someone has impersonated him online, created his professional website, and begun posting “his” opinions on Twitter and Facebook. That’s when things go from bad to worse. To his horror, those opinions are of a controversial nature, discussing religion, citing from the Bible and other holy texts, thus upsetting his acquaintances and people he cares about. But since “his” posts have gone viral, Paul is powerless to do anything to stop them. Fortunately, he identifies his impersonator, but that person makes Paul ask bigger questions about himself: Who is he, really? What’s his identity? Does he really know himself and his heritage? Etc. (Once again, it resonates with us because identity theft is an actual problem these days, isn’t it?)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this yeah, which was my main interest in it, assuming it must be a great literary achievement, but, frankly, I can’t say that it has met my expectations. Yes, it is profound and thought-provoking, and it is funny too, but (and I hate to say this) it’s also tedious, in places. Paul’s narration sounds almost like stream-of-consciousness—painstakingly detailed descriptions of his daily routine, his watching baseball games, his thoughts on religion, his correspondence with his impersonator…on and on it goes, sometimes ad nauseam. I even wanted to quit reading it. What kept me going, though, was Paul’s great sense of humor and his flashbacks (many related to his relationship with his ex-girlfriends and their families) that peppered the novel. His little jokes and anecdotes made me laugh so hard, at times, that I had to put the book down to wipe my tears.
You may or may not like the novel, but one thing I can promise you: after reading this dentist’s account of his patients’ dental problems, resulting from insufficient care, you will start flossing twice as vigorously after each meal and snack. 🙂
Joshua Ferris is a gifted writer and I’ll definitely read his previous two novels.