Joshua Ferris made a splash back in 2007 with Then We Came to the End, his wry-yet-profound satire on office life. Somehow he managed to put his finger on the one thing all workplaces have in common—distractions. The bagels, gossip, and desk chairs of his fictional advertising firm became universal symbols of how difficult it is to be in the present when you’re muddling through a workday.
In 2010 Ferris brought us The Unnamed, an overly self-conscious story about a man who literally could not stop walking. The Wall Street lawyer who suddenly finds himself walking out of meetings and away from his family is just the kind of man who longs to be in that office from Then We Came to the End. He wants distractions, but his body won’t let him have them. The walking disease ruins his life, and while the metaphors and meditations on modern life offer up plenty to think about, the protagonist never found a direction and neither does the reader. By veering off into too many subplots and existential tangents, Ferris lost us. The Unnamed was a textbook case of sophomore slump.
As a reader who had adamantly believed in Ferris’s talents after his debut, I was sorely disappointed by The Unnamed. Enough so that I almost didn’t pick up his next effort. But I did, and it’s with great pleasure that I assure you his new novel coming this month, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, returns to his first brilliantly funny, original, and complex chord and follows through on the promise of greatness we first saw in Then We Came to the End. Readers: I, for one, am so glad that Ferris is back.
While you might not think you want to read a story about a dentist (one who nags all his patients to floss, no less) and his peculiar case of identity theft, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour transcends this bizarre and strangely clever premise. Paul O’Rourke runs his own Manhattan dental practice on Park Avenue and spends most of his time considering how his life could either be much worse (those bums on the street) or much better (those gorgeous urban women rushing by in high heels that don’t give him the time of day). Anxious and brooding, Paul is utterly unable to just be and has a pattern of completely losing his own identity in relationships. He’s an atheist but longs for religion if only so he can have the experience of belonging to something. Paul refuses to have an online presence despite the growing need to sustain and advertise his practice, and instead spends his free time obsessing over the Red Sox or making pathetic late night phone calls to his ex-girlfriend (who is also his employee and office manager).
So imagine Paul’s shock when someone mysteriously sets up a website for his business. From there, the identity theft continues with the appearance of a Facebook page and Twitter account. Whoever has created Paul’s online identity has done a good job with one bizarre exception—they’ve turned him into a religious man. The “About Me” section on his website features what looks like a biblical quote. Soon this online religious identity has people so fooled that even Paul’s ex-girlfriend wonders if he’s become his online persona.
Ferris is an tremendous fan of Thomas Pynchon, and the emulation of style and ideas is evident here. This is a book rife with inner monologues and razor-sharp dialogue, and it’s dense. The themes of belonging, family, religion, and the absurdity of our world run by technology are both thought-provoking and daring. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour will challenge your intellect. You will need energy to read through the dense territory of O’Rourke’s world, but you won’t be disappointed.