By Joshua Ferris
Joshua Ferris’s protagonists are all carved into emotional husks by the monotony of everyday life. They’re bound to resonate in some way with most readers, and Ferris’ evident knack for capturing them is what made his debut, Then We Came to the End, so successful.
In his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris’ flirtation with Internet-age spiritual alienation has grown darker and more relentless. The book is narrated by a neurotic dentist named Paul O’Rourke, who is obsessed with the Red Sox and perplexed by belief in God. But despite his outspoken atheism, Paul is hypnotized by the strong sense of belonging enjoyed by the families of his religious girlfriends. His tumultuous childhood has left him lonely and bereft, peering at these “normal” families from the outside.
Having unfairly idealized them, Paul is disappointed when he rediscovers that all families have their crosses to bear, so to speak. “Without monstrous distortions, I was slowly learning, without lies and hypocrisy, one cannot have the idealized American life I so longed for,” he laments. “Perfection was marred only by those corruptions necessary to its enterprise.” To Rise is heavy with such revelations, though Ferris injects just enough fresh, unexpected humor to keep you from drowning.
The plot takes off when a website for Paul’s dentistry practice pops up out of nowhere and, to his horror, implies that he is some kind of religious fanatic. By attempting to reclaim his online identity, Ferris forces Paul to confront his real one. For the first time, Paul must reflect on his affinity for underdogs of all stripes and his misunderstood attempts to join their ranks.
Though Ferris brings much of his trademark charm and insight to the table, To Rise is not as tight as his previous efforts. The pacing is awkward, dragging at times, and the book’s thematic tendrils half-heartedly collapse into a limp ball at the end. It also suffers at the hand of lines like, “I appreciated Mercer’s laughter. It showed a sense of humor.” Still, there is much to chew on here, and Ferris remains one of the most commanding voices in fiction today.