To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Hipster-bar

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.

21 comments

  1. I read Then We Came to the End for book group earlier this month and I was relieved to reach the end; Joshua Ferris definitely can write and his observations of life’s minutiae can be spot on but his subject matter(s) is dull.

    I’m reminded of a Sex and the City episode where writer boyfriend (Burger?) is critiqued by Carrie, who tells him that no woman in Manhattan would deign to wear a scrunchie.

    1. I think that’s the essential problem – no one wants to read about self indulgent middle class moaners! I’d like to see Joshua Ferris tackling something interesting for a change.

  2. For an awful moment I thought you were going to say you liked it, at which point I would have lost all faith in you, Rachel!
    I was dragooned into reading the first book for book group and loathed it. Find something worth writing about just about sums it up.

  3. This was one of my rare, unfinished books, I so disliked it. But you’ re right, he can write – try “The Unnamed” – which I found incredibly powerful and vivid (if not a bit depressing – but still I loved it).

  4. I’ve often been quoted as saying there have been no great novels written since D.H. Lawrence died–an exaggeration of course, but when I read a review like yours, I gladly turn back to the 19th-century and early 20th-century writers that form the bulk of my fiction reading. Ferris sounds a bit like Nicholson Baker, who wrote The Mezzanine: an entire novel surrounding a man’s ruminations as he rides down an escalator. On the other hand, if you’d like to read a great modern novel about identity theft–and so much more–Don Chaon’s Await Your Reply is excellent.

    1. It reminded me so much of The Mezzanine, Deb – which has to be one of the most pointless novels I’ve ever read. Why ever did I bother, I don’t know!

    2. I’ve never heard of The Mezzanine! I’ll add that to the list of books I don’t need to read! I think a return to the past is definitely in order, though I will look out for the novel you recommend!

  5. Your statement “He just needs to find something worth writing about next time,” struck a chord with me. I have read several books recently that provoked that same reaction for me.

  6. Pity. I don’t think I’ve heard anything good about this book so far — it makes me sad for Joshua Ferris, after he was so successful with Then We Came to the End. I read Then We Came to the End a while ago, and I thought it was fine. It had some funny observations about office life, and I thought the gimmick was neat and I wasn’t sorry I read it, but I’ve been fine without rereading it.

    1. Well I wouldn’t feel sad, Jenny! He’s made his money! I just think it’s sad that writers like this get all the buzz when hundreds of far better novels don’t get half the publicity or attention they deserve. Being trendy pays but ultimately their fame won’t last!

  7. I laughed at your comment “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 know exactly what you mean. I have not heard of this author but enjoyed the review. I too have difficulty with modern authors at times because they tend to try to find some clever that has a creative edge to outdo other authors and it is the reader who suffers. I think I’ll stick to older books except for the occasional newer one. I don’t want to be a complete wet blanket.

  8. i am impressed that you carried on reading this. I gave up and agree with Pam re new books. I love to discover old reads on your blog. I am reading Into The Whirlwind and finding it so moving.

    1. Thanks Enid – don’t worry, I’ll be back to the usual soon enough. So glad to hear you’re loving Into the Whirlwind – isn’t it marvellous?

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