To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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I had to read this book when I saw that it was one of the contenders for the Man Booker Prize, by an American author no less.

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The first thing I did to this library book upon opening it, however, was to correct the epigraph in pencil.

Do not tell me, Mr. Joshua Ferris, that you expect readers to believe a verse in Job, of the Old Testament, says merely, “Ha, ha.” It smacks of atheism.

But, wait. That is exactly what you are addressing, with a plethora of other issues, in your fascinating book about a dentist named Paul O’Rourke in specific, and our American culture in general.

At first, I found Paul terribly funny:

Ignoring the poignancy of everyone’s limited allotment of good mornings, I would not say good morning. Or I would in all innocence forget about our numbered opportunities to say good morning, that horrifying circumscription, and simply fail to say it. Or, I would say good morning sparingly, begrudgingly, injudiciously, or tyrannically…What was so good about it anyway, the too-often predictable, so-called new morning? It was usually preceded by a long struggle for a short drowse that so many people call night. That was never sufficiently ceremonial to call for fresh greetings.

But, by page 200 or so of this sharp wit, one tires of such groaning. One realizes that there is very little that will appease Paul’s  humour. His days consist of attending to his patients, wishing that his ex-girlfriend, Connie, would still love him, and lamenting his life. Not to mention the lives of those around him.

I was not going to spend my Friday night being gawked at. My Thursday nights never caused me any troubles. It was always my Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights that caused me troubles. On those nights, I was reduced to eating and drinking. The city (Manhattan) had almost nothing else to offer, and if this great city had almost nothing else to offer, imagine what it was like in lesser cities, or the suburbs, or the small rural towns where so many people are clerks and farmers, and you will understand, finally, why this country has become a nation of fat alcoholics and the nurses and therapists who tend to them.

Paul makes astute observations on those around him, specifically how people (including himself) are obsessed with their “me-machines”, constantly checking them for emails, texts, updates, or even to Google a certain topic. Here is a passage of the very clever dialogue he writes in a conversation with his hygienist:

…she’d say, “Oh, for goodness’ sake. Put the phone away once you enter the street and take a look around you. Why must you always be reading your phone?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “If you know it is merely a distraction from the many things you don’t want to think about, why let yourself be a slave to it?” I’d tell,  her, she’d say, “That is the most blasphemous thing I have ever heard. A little technology could never take the place of the Almighty. We are talking about the Almighty, for heaven’s sake. Mobile phones or no mobiles phones, we still have the primal need to pray, do you we not?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Sending and receiving email and texts are not a new form of prayer. Do you not understand that that little machine, by taking your attention away from God and the world He created, is only increasing your despair?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “I don’t give a fig for the world it’s created. It will never rival God’s.

And now we come to the heart of the book, for ultimately this is a book about faith. Or, about being Jewish. Or, about not having any faith at all.

When Paul discovers an unknown source has put up a web site in his name, and is delivering emails to his box, he is most disconcerted. They are very personal, and they are very insightful about who he is as a person.

I know it must be uncomfortable for someone to pop up out of nowhere and diagnose your troubles with pinpoint accuracy. I don’t think you’re an animal in a cage-far from it. You’re the full measure of a man, thoroughly contemporary, at odds with the America dream of upward mobility and its empty material success, and in search of real meaning for your life. I should know, Paul, I was there once, too. In fact, you might even say that you and I are one and the same.

The rest of the novel takes us through Paul’s effort to discover the source of these emails, and in so doing examines the role of the believer. It is a powerful book, which has given me much to think about. If this is truly how the majority of Americans think, we have become a lost nation.

I don’t know how To Rise Again At A Decent Hour will fare in the Man Booker competition, but I think the original, creative writing of Joshua Ferris deserves to have brought it to the short list so far.

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14 thoughts on “To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris”

  1. I have only read his second novel and like it but didn’t love it ,so not sure if this is really me he seems to be growing this is on the booker list ,would you think it worthy of being a winner ?

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    1. In order to determine a winner, it helps me to read the others in contention, and this book is all I’ve had time for. The writing is very, very clever, but the despair is almost unpalatable. If the Booker prize is awarded for a book which seems to speak to present day society, then it may very well win. I see so many Americans with Paul’s cynical point of view. The question becomes, “How do we overcome such hopelessness?”

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  2. I do a little bit of work with the local library, and as we’re promoting the Booker shortlist titles at the moment, I’m keen to keep up with relevant reviews. It’s interesting to hear that it has given you much to contemplate as it sounds a deeper read than I’d assumed at first sight.

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    1. Matters of faith are always of great interest to me, and Ferris does a masterful job of integrating his humor (although of a desperate variety) with serious matters. I think it is the character’s point of view that makes it all so intriguing. I had hoped to read more of the Booker short list, but our library was terrible about getting them to me in time (so many holds on so few copies). I had the Fowler one, but not enough time to get through it before it was due. I also have Bone Clocks, but I don’t believe that made the short list.

      All this talk of short lists makes me eager for the IFFP again! xo

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  3. You certainly surprised me by your willingness to write in a library book, even if it was in pencil. I was even more surprised that you felt the need to “correct” the author’s choice for an epigraph. You’re free not to like it, of course, or to disagree with it, but it seems to me at best unfair to the author and unfair to the next reader who comes along, who won’t have the chance to experience the epigraph without commentary and form his or her own opinion.

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    1. Well, I stand properly chastised. No one should write in a library book, and to ruin it for another reader makes me sufficiently unhappy to erase it before I return it. Still, let it be known that I do not like quoting the Bible incorrectly. At all.

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      1. Translation is an inexact science, and to some degree it’s not science at all, but art. Idioms, colloquialisms and exclamations can be particularly difficult, and often change over time as new editions are produced.

        The Cambridge version of the King James Bible translates the verse as:

        “He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

        In like manner, the 1611 King James, Websters, and an assortment of other earlier editions — both Christian and Jewish — prefer to translate the expression as, “Ha,ha.”

        I wouldn’t say the author quoted the Bible incorrectly. He simply chose an alternate, and less familiar, translation. In this day of using “ha ha” on Twitter and FB as an expression that sometimes verges on ridicule as much as humor, it can be a bit of a jolt to see it used as the epigraph does. But it’s completely legitimate, and simply leaves me curious why he used that older wording.

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        1. How interesting to hear the old Cambridge translation. My New International Version quoted that part as, “Aha,” rather than “Ha, ha.”

          But that’s my problem: in quoting scripture, or any text, you can never take just the words you want out of a passage. The meaning is changed entirely. If Ferris wants to make a point fine, and of course it’s his book so he can make any point he wants. But he shouldn’t pretend that two words are the context of that verse in Job.

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  4. I read all of his books and always got a good chuckle along the way, but half way through this one, I realized his writing really isn’t for me.

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    1. I have not read anything else by Joshua Ferris, but I am eager to read more. His dialogue is very witty, his writing quite acerbic, at least in this particular novel. I’m interested to see how it does against the other books in the short list. The themes of this book, particularly the issue of faith, is quite relevant to today.

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  5. Well, I had no intention of reading this book, despite the wit that is apparent in the quotes you chose. But then you write “If this is truly how the majority of Americans think, we have become a lost nation.” and now I am really curious about this book.

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    1. I’m so glad to have caught your interest in this book. I wish that Joshua Ferris would have responded to the invitation I put forth on Twitter to discuss his epigraph, but I guess he has other thigs to do than correspond with his readers. At any rate, the wit is tremendous, especially as it underlines what I see as a very sad, and virtually lost, multitude of people in today’s society.

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