It has never ceased to be a thrill to be sent new books by publishers. Sometimes they’re a surprise gift in the post, other times I have chosen them myself from a kind email offering me a selection of new titles. Either way, it’s a joy to be given copies of books I probably wouldn’t have come across by myself, and that encourage me to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new. This year alone I have been introduced to Matthew Quick, Elizabeth Goudge, Jonathan Smith, Anna Hope…the list could go on. I probably would never have got around to reading their work if left to my own devices, and I am incredibly glad that they were delivered to my door to demonstrate the rich and varied range of literary voices available to me. As someone who has always maintained that modern novels are largely a waste of time, sometimes it’s good to be proved wrong. (Don’t quote me on that.)
Very recently, I was pleased to be offered a copy of Joshua Ferris’ new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Penguin. A work friend had recommended his first novel, And Then We Came to The End, as he knows how much I hate the ridiculousness of working life, and while I added it to my Amazon wishlist, I never actually got around to reading it. I was excited to try Ferris’ writing style and hoped that I would really enjoy it, giving me the impetus to read his other work. The front cover is bright and fun; a great piece of design and suggestive of a similarly peppy content. The premise sounded intriguing; a depressed Manhattan dentist whose life gets railroaded by someone stealing his online identity and proselytising about a heretofore unknown race of oppressed peoples, leading him on an interesting journey to discovering the secrets of his soul. So far, so good. Not my usual cup of tea, but certainly an inventive take on the absurdities of modern life. I opened it up, keen to get started and immerse myself in the world of Joshua Ferris. By the time I got to the end, however, I wished I’d never begun.
There were elements that I found interesting and compelling. The main character, Paul, is endearing, despite his self centred and socially incompetent behaviour, and he is brought to life through his realistic and thoughtful portrayal. The concept of a forgotten people, the Ulms, descendants of an ancient Biblical tribe and victims of centuries of oppression, the discovery of which can offer its members a sense of belonging in an increasingly isolated world, is cleverly and convincingly realised. Ferris makes frequent pertinent insights into our modern society that had me smiling and nodding in agreement, though he’s certainly not the first or best at exploring our growing dependence on technology that has led to a decline in our ability to communicate effectively with one another and engage fully in the world around us. The strength of the novel is in its unusual and intellectually demanding plot; I did enjoy the notion of the central idea and the challenge of having to really wrestle with the content in order to understand and appreciate the message Ferris was attempting to convey.
However, unfortunately, most of the book reads like a bad Woody Allen film. There are pages and pages of self indulgent waffle that overwhelm the elements of brilliance. I couldn’t help but feel there was a certain element of arrogance in believing that anyone would want to read four page long treatises on the experience of watching someone tie their hair up into a scrunchie. Yes, really. Despite its clever and thoughtful exploration of the search for meaning and value in our increasingly community-less and God-less world, it is too mired in excessive pseudo intellectual ramblings to be an enjoyable, inspiring and meaningful reading experience. Reading this was akin to being forced to listen to over educated and underemployed twenty-somethings deliberating over their first world problems in a cocktail bar with bare light bulbs and deliberately mismatching wooden chairs. Unless you’re a hipster who spends more time in your own navel than in reality, I doubt you’ll find much to enjoy in this book. It’s a shame, because Joshua Ferris can write. He just needs to find something worth writing about next time.