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. But what Ferris has that Elkin had is the keen ability to traverse the high wire of satire and lyricism, to at once write a sentence that can drop a reader’s jaw, then make them giggle in the next. In many ways, To Rise Again is the perfect synthesis of his lauded debut office-comedy, Then We Came To The End, and his less-well-received (but arguably superior) domestic tragedy, The Unnamed. Ferris, also like Elkin, is a writer perfectly at ease with both the bleakly absurd and the deeply humane, using them equally in hopeful pursuit of a redemptive truth.
The central concern of To Rise Again is the identity theft of Paul O’Rourke, a 36-year-old dentist, whose inability to adapt to regular society extends to an aversion to nearly every available offshoot of social media. He spends his days tending to anonymous mouths during strictly appointed hours, failing to connect with either his hygienist, whose expression is hidden behind a surgical mask, or his former lover, Connie, whom he keeps on in reception despite the demise of their relationship. It’s telling that O’Rourke neglected to build himself a private office at his own practice, instead opting for a fifth treatment room to make more money. The arrangement finds him most often sitting in the waiting room, pining for Connie, scanning the tabloid headlines of the scattered magazines, and using his cell phone (which he calls a “me-machine”) to email the individual who has set up a company website, Facebook account, Twitter handle, and corresponding username with which to troll various websites.
The imposter’s intent becomes increasingly bizarre, and the middle of the novel gets somewhat bogged down with the historical account of O’Rourke’s possible lineage to an ancient people claiming to have been even more persecuted than the Jews. It all has O’Rourke, an avowed atheist, yanked into the world in which he feels least comfortable, simultaneously drawn into the drama of belonging to something outside of himself while longing to retreat back to his home—a place where he obsessively watches videotaped (yes, videotapes; he purchases multiple backup VCRs in preparation for the day when they stop being manufactured) Red Sox games, ritually eating chicken and rice and skipping the sixth inning as superstitious gestures to conjure wins. He has his tiny faiths, his daily routines, and of course, that waiting room he often inhabits becomes representative of his predicament.
At his core, O’Rourke is desperate to belong to something, anything. That the intrusion of social media into his life spurs this recognition in himself is not so much a testament to the power of the technology—the era of selfies, oversharing, and the sudden normalcy of never being more than a few feet from a phone—but the realization that technology has provided the illusion of filling that need while actually amplifying it. O’Rourke laments, “It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected. No thanks, man, I can’t do it. The world was a sufficient trial… before Facebook.”
In the end, Joshua Ferris’ novel is about connectivity, all of the available illusions of it, and the eternal longing to fully invest in just one of them: religion, love, history, ancestry, family, the Internet. The irony, of course, is that with all of the swirling gadgets and doodads downloadable from the cloud (as it’s so eerily called), the answer is the same as it has been throughout history: hope. Ferris writes, “There had to be hope, no matter how hopeless. There had to be effort that might not be doomed.” And there is this book, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, and the hope it provides in row after row of wonderful prose, a connection that’s held up as well as any other, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Twitter: a fine author, a good story, and a reader.