I’ve heard it whispered in certain literary quarters that American novelists have failed to adequately respond to a post-9/11 world. That their fiction lacks sufficient imagination and indignation towards their government and its policies. I think this is a whisper of weak foundations. While the terror of drones, the NSA and the NRA are certainly worthy of tomes, I’m actually more intrigued with the terror of ordinary life. And few American writers I know capture this as masterfully as Joshua Ferris.
Ferris himself doesn’t buy into the idea of literary canons. “I consider myself a writer in the bedroom most days,” he says. “Or a writer at the desk. Sometimes a writer at Starbucks….The greater the sweep of the generalization, the more ill at ease I find myself.” Throughout his career he has explored variations on the Emersonian concept of self-reliance—pitting the individual versus the collective, zooming into the alienation within relationships and the rampant isolation that exists in American society. His first novel, Then We Came to the End, is set in a Chicago advertising agency and is a brilliant satirical take on corporate life. His second, The Unnamed, features a protagonist who suffers from an unnamed affliction —the desire to walk away from his possessions, house, job, wife, child. His third, and most recent book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, gives us Dr Paul C. O’Rourke, a dentist who doesn’t believe in God, who lives in New York and is obsessed with the Boston Red Sox, who hates emoticons and falls in love in a fatal way. Paul is something of a Luddite when it comes to technology, although he does have a “me-machine” (Smartphone). One day Paul’s online identity is stolen, and it sets him off on a mad spiral to go in search of his perpetrator which, of course, turns out to be a massive search of self.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in a long time—hilarious, philosophical and absolutely contemporary. There are several brilliant riffs on love, baseball, the Internet, where I felt like standing up and applauding, (instead I just yellow-highlighted on my iPad). For instance, when Paul says, “I was already at one remove before the Internet came along. I need another remove? Now I have to spend the time that I’m not doing the thing they’re doing reading about them doing it? Streaming all the clips of them doing it, commenting on how lucky they are to be doing all those things, liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever?”
For anyone concerned with the impossibility of intimacy, the horrors of entitlement, of what might make a man climb into a bathtub one day to close the shower curtain and shoot himself, this is a book that ponders all those things. It is also about the terror of other people’s lives, their normalcy, their leisure—of the secrets they seem to possess as they go about moisturising their hands, playing softball, walking their dogs. The next time I hear whispers in the literary grove about the failure of American novelists to capture post-9/11 terror, I’m going to suggest they read this one.