Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Existential Dread of Having a Tooth Pulled and Having Your Identity Stolen Have More In Common Than You Think, and More Ruminations on Joshua Ferris, Who is at Boswell Next Monday, May 19, 7 PM.

In this age of paranoia about identity, nothing seems worse than getting word that someone is charging things in your name, or withdrawing money from your account, or perhaps even just sending messages. It’s not just about the financial losses you might suffer from the actions, or the amount of work it might take to repair the damages; it’s a clear violation of self.

This is the ordeal that unravels in Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Paul O’Rourke, in some ways, is in many ways settled. He has a multi-chair dental practice on New York’s Park Avenue. He lives off the Brooklyn promenade. Though he’s not settled down, he’s dated a fair number of desirable women. He loves the Red Sox.

That said, there are issues—keeping the practice humming involves a lot of hustle, the relationships haven’t worked out, and his relationship to the Sox is almost too intense, to the point where he records each game on an old VCR cassette, and not only does he have the tapes obsessively organized, but has backup recorders for when the old one falls apart.

So when Dr. O’Rourke’s clinic notices that the practice has a website, they are glad to see he’s made a technological leap. For while O’Rourke is obsessed with his me-machine (smartphone), he’s refused to use the internet to market the business. The only problem is that he didn’t set up the website. A Facebook page soon follows, and after that, comments from “Faux Rourke” appear on various websites.

That’s the classic kind of identity intrusion that might make the beginnings of a thriller perhaps, but Ferris goes in a different existential direction. Interestingly enough, Ferris did this sort of bait and switch in his second novel, The Unnamed as well. In this case, Dr. O’Rourke begins to realize that there is a second sort of identity dislocation at play. Not only is someone pretending to be him, but that person is asserting that O’Rourke himself is not quite who he thinks he is. It starts off with some seemingly Biblical passages mixed into the O’Rourke data, but it turns out it’s only Biblical era; O’Rourke might be a member of the hidden people called The Ulms.

It’s not that Paul hasn’t struggled with identity his whole life. With each relationship, he’s felt the pull of his girlfriend’s Catholicism or Jewishness, while at the same time, his instinct was to push it away, by alienating himself from the family.

In some ways, To Rise in Again at a Decent Hour plays off the themes of both previous novels. Yes, it’s a rare thing when I’ve read an author’s entire body of work by book three, so I’m trying to make the most of it. Like Then We Came to the End, he captures the quirky group dynamics of an office, which was an ad agency in his first novel and the dental practice here. The humor can be sharp and sometimes uncomfortable and self-targeted and not afraid to tackle the taboo, somewhere between a Louis C.K. and Amy Schumer, though clearly being a boy writer speaking through a boy’s mouth, I’m talking using the latter more in terms of the way she balances ha-ha with discomfort, and the taboos are more faith and religion than sexuality.

And like The Unnamed, we’re dealing with a person who loses control of his life. The risk is more external than Tim’s condition, but nonetheless, both novels are to an extent, struggling with control. In some ways, so is the first. You have this ad agency, this ecosystem, and nothing the members do can save it. Tim’s body is out of control, and so is Paul’s identity.

So why the dentist as hero? So much of Paul’s interactions are with patients, and those incidents give us a handle on his mental health. We also have a unique relationship with dentists. Whatever medical doctors do to make us uncomfortable, they are seemingly saving our lives with every gesture. A dentist is saving our teeth, and will likely cause a great deal more pain and discomfort to relatively healthy people. This leaves us with a bit a bitter taste in our mouth, so to speak, even when the paste has a tasty mint flavor.  I love my dentist and yet I still don’t go as often as I should and I make my appointments with dread. Come to think of it, I make my haircut appointments with dread, so perhaps I’m an outlier.

Little, Brown has definitely enjoyed playing off the hero-dentist in the story. There’s supposedly promotional floss floating around somewhere, which we’ll have at our event with Ferris next Monday, May 19, 7 pm. But more than that, I’m fascinated to hear what Ferris has to say about his story. The more I read Ferris, the more I’ve decided he’s a genius. I’m not saying this book is that easy or comfortable to read—the analogy to sitting in a dentist chair actually rings true—but for folks who are looking for a good intellectual read, it’s absolutely worth it.

Here are a few links of interest. Ron Charles in The Washington Post called To Rise Again at a Decent Hour “a brilliant intellectual mess” and hints that several hundred pages were cut from the final draft. He notes that “at his best, which is most of the time, Ferris spins Paul’s observations and reflections into passages of flashing comedy that sound like a stand-up theologian suffering a nervous breakdown.”

In Slate magazine, Ferris and editor Reagan Arthur discuss cutting 200 pages from the book. Now that must have felt to Ferris like getting a root canal.

In the AV Club review, Greg LeGambina writes "No one reads the novels of Stanley Elkin anymore, so it could be misconstrued as a kind of slight to claim that with Joshua Ferris’ third novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, the author has fully arrived as Elkin’s heir apparent. Ferris’ most recent book is already being compared to the work of Woody Allen, Joseph Heller, and Gary Shteyngart. In other words, it is often hilarious, alarmingly insightful about a particular historical moment, and Jewish."

Here's Chris Foran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Thanks to the faith Ferris has in the sincerity of his character's journey, you find yourself rooting for Paul to find his way, even if it takes someone to pose as him on Twitter for him to realize just how lost he was."

From the Wall Street Journal Bookshelf, offers this praise: "O'Rourke, an atheist searching for faith, who spends his days "whistling past the grave of every open mouth," proves eminently susceptible to claims that he might belong to an ancient bloodline. As he grows more intrigued by the cult that has co-opted his name, Mr. Ferris's novel slows its manic riffing to become something both stranger and sadder. It's a pleasure watching this young writer confidently range from the registers of broad punchline comedy to genuine spiritual depth." Wow!

Hope that helps convince you. Let's have spiritual crisis together, and don't forget to floss.

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