Any novel can sound boring when reduced to its most basic summary. Anna Karenina: A woman has an affair and struggles in her marriage. Of Mice and Men: Two itinerant agricultural workers plot to buy a farm where they can raise rabbits. So to describe Joshua Ferris’s new novel as the story of an atheist dentist who’s obsessed with religion, baseball, and his online identity isn’t very helpful. Instead, recall the last time you were at a wedding reception and ended up cornered by someone’s tiresome relative—perhaps, God forbid, your own. Now imagine that this person is thrusting upon you his 400-page treatise.
This distinction between boring-sounding and truly dull is important, because Ferris’s debut novel, Then We Came to the End, ingeniously narrated almost entirely in the collective first person, is a minor classic. It, too, is about ostensibly boring stuff: the office culture at a Chicago ad agency going down the tubes in the early aughts. The disappearance of an office chair is a hinge event. Yet it’s a funny and moving book that reveals a deep knowledge about the modern workplace (missing from much of contemporary fiction), where the drama often rises and falls on picayune events. Ferris understood that all most of us want in life is for someone to bring in donuts and tell us a little gossip.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is narrated by Paul O’Rourke, a successful dentist on the Upper East Side who discovers that someone is impersonating him online. And that person is writing some pretty weird stuff. Soon enough the mystery recedes: The impersonator is pushing a sect known as the Ulms, an offshoot (invented by Ferris) of the Amalekites (a tribe described in the Bible as enemies of the Israelites). Supposedly, Paul is a genetic descendent. The Ulms take as their central tenet an enduring skepticism about the existence of God. Passages about them are interspersed with musings about faith, especially Judaism, as refracted through Paul's previous romantic relationships with women of one religious stripe or another.
To be interested in the ruminations of a Paul O’Rourke, you have to care about what makes him tick. You have to believe the dialogue that comes out of his mouth. You have to identify, even if only a little, with his struggle to reconcile some of the contradictions in his life. Asking for the likes of Nathan Zuckerman might be too much. Even a lesser-Woody Allen character here would do. (Paul isn’t Jewish, but he’s nebbish-y and neurotic.) But recognizable human motive is what’s missing from To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, in which people seem driven primarily by whatever conversation or action will occasion the next set piece. And they’re rattling around in a narrative whose cupboard is pretty bare of event. Several plot developments arrive as social media postings or website updates that are delivered to Paul on an iPad by an assistant in his dental office.
I started out hopeful. There are moments of insight nestled in the tedium of Paul’s psyche. Here Paul muses about what to do after work, in the playground of New York City:
Many things were closed or starting to close by that time of night: museums, art galleries, bookstores. You had to try not to let it limit you. Think of all the things still available. I could have a Starbucks. Or a bagel. Or a falafel sandwich. Once again it occurred to me that so many of the things I could do in New York involved eating and drinking. Had we been placed here on earth to do nothing but eat and drink? Was I simply supposed to come home from work, start eating and drinking, and eat and drink my way through the night, piling falafel and hot dog onto chicken curry and washing it all down with copious amounts of beer and endless nightcaps of whiskey, before passing out halfway to the bathroom in my Pride Freedom Mobility Chair?
Paul is onto something here. New York as the city of endless consumption, despite its copious cultural offerings. The makings of a good essay, actually—the kind of thing that one could imagine ending up in a collection similar to Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone, if Ferris decided to drop the construct of Paul and make these points himself. In fact, “Paul” goes on to expand on this idea for another page or so until his mind wanders to contemplate why he doesn’t attend more professional dentists’ functions.
But such points of light are few and far between.
One trouble is that Ferris appears to take his narrator too seriously—giving Paul pages to amplify upon thoughts that aren’t nearly as interesting as “What’s for dinner?” For instance, when a chunk of Ulm history concerning a hapless Job-like character named Agag appears in a bio for Paul on a website, Paul recounts it in quasi–Old Testament style but with snarky asides thrown in. A sample:
Then, lo and behold, who should appear before him, “moving upon a cloud of blood,” which was a little hard to visualize, but whatever, semantics, it’s God Himself, the First and the Last. … Agag cowers upon the charnel cliff, wondering—in a twist on this type of story, in which the prophet always knows from the first gust of heavenly wind on his cheek just who’s talking—if it’s really God he’s seeing or, considering all the shit he’s been through, just the first documented case of PTSD.
Ferris seems to be trying to say something about religion and the ancient desire for human connection in a modern world that makes it increasingly difficult. It’s something Paul wants, though he sabotages his chances at every turn. But in creating a narrative in which the characters talk about little other than faith or their lack thereof, Ferris has removed the human element that would make this exploration worthwhile. When characters become mere props for ideas, the ideas themselves lose much of their power.
Take the scene in which Paul and his head dental hygienist, Mrs. Convoy, meet at an Olive Garden in a New Jersey mall. No pretext is offered for this extra-office get-together. But the event gives Paul an opportunity to look down on the other shoppers while pretending not to (“A mall can make you feel alive again if you go there only to watch and if you watch without judgment, looking kindly upon the concerted shoppers, who have no choice about buying or not buying, it would seem”). Over a glass of wine, he and Mrs. Convoy, a devout Catholic, bat around the eternal destiny of their Jewish co-worker (and Paul’s ex-girlfriend), Connie. Offers Paul, “You insist, do you not, that Connie, with all her family, will be pitched into the boiling waters of hell upon death because they don’t believe in Christ?” Pass the breadsticks.
I admire Ferris’s moxie. He’s taken that old literary saw that a great writer can make any subject, no matter how dull on its face, interesting. He proved his chops with Then We Came to the End. In his second novel, The Unnamed, he wrote so skillfully about lawyering that readers could hang in suspense on what a higher-up in the office thought of a brief written for summary judgment. The end of the novel flirted with metaphysics—and tedium—as that lawyer, cursed with a mysterious compulsion to walk, ended up in an internalized body-versus-soul struggle. But as long as the central character remained in the corporeal world, the novel rested on solid footing.
Perhaps, in tackling the cornucopia of boring topics that comprise To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris hoped to set himself the ultimate challenge. If only he’d written the character that could help him pull it off. Or maybe the trouble is that he’s too perfectly captured the modern New York City everyman—a successful professional, insulated from financial worry or family obligations, self-absorbed to the point of narcissism yet frustrated that he can’t find the idyllic connection he’s looking for. The kind of guy I’ve been on one too many OK Cupid dates with.
After reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I reread Then We Came to the End, to see if I misremembered how good it was. I hadn’t. What would it take to get me to reread To Rise Again at a Decent Hour? You’d have to hold a gun to my head. No, I take it back. You’d have to pull the trigger.