Reading the Man Booker Prize 2014: To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

I really wanted to like this book — it’s billed as a comic novel, and it has a grumpy atheist protagonist! My kind of thing then, but I still struggled with it.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, Ferris’ third novel after Then We Came To The End and The Unnamed (neither of which I have read), tells the story of Paul O’Rourke, a high-flying New York dentist who struggles with life, love and his expectations. Everything that defines him — his past loves, his obsession with the Red Sox, and his professed atheism — seems to fall short of providing him with a sense of identity or purpose. He works, misses his ex-girlfriend, and watches every Red Sox game, but he can’t bring himself to enjoy life. One day, he is alerted to the fact that someone has set up a website for his dental practice without his consent. Where nobody sees a problem, he gets furious at the fact that “his” biographical information on the website, and later on social media, seems to connect him to an obscure ancient religion. Irritation slowly turns into a reluctant interest, as he tries to find out about Ulmism and his role in it.

It’s an interesting concept, but it didn’t captivate me. In parts, Ferris’s style is hysterically funny, but religion is a subject that — even for an atheist — requires a certain level of seriousness and thought. Paul’s experiences of religion are highly personal, yet never first-hand: He has dated a Catholic and a Jew, and both times tried his hardest to be accepted into their family circles. His knowledge of religion comes from hours of study (in order to impress the prospective fathers-in-law) as well as witnessing the effect it has on families. Having never had a stable family unit, religion quite clearly fills this void in his life. He never managed to be accepted into his chosen families, because his relationships never worked out. There is a whole lot of baggage right there, then, and Ferris’ accounts of them are a bit too long-winded and dull for my taste. I have to admit, though, that the concept of an atheist experiencing religion is cleverly done. As an atheist, Paul’s only stance can be “There is no god,” whereas religion has an almost infinite amount of argumentation and reason behind it. Showing both Catholicism and Judaism at such a small, familiar level, rather than trying to intellectually out-argue them somehow, is a good move, and Ferris is unlikely to meet with much serious criticism for it. In the case of Ulmism, the secret, almost extinct cult he is being associated with, Paul can finally witness the leaps of faith and prospect of belonging that his almost-in-laws always barred him from.

Still, and herein may lie the problem with atheism, it all remains very theoretical and distant. If you subscribe to a world-view that is nothing more than a negation of most others, religion can never fill any void for you. For me and many others, that’s fine. It’s exactly what we’re after. Ferris, however, deals with the modern truth-seekers, the ones who feel there is a void they need to fill, and he describes the lengths they will go to in order to fill it. His description of one character’s search for enlightenment, the time and money spent on meditation, travel or questionable “rechanneling,” could be funny if it wasn’t ultimately so deeply sad. I guess it couldn’t have been a funnier novel than it is, because the subject is such a universally depressing one. For Paul O’Rourke, religion isn’t what fills the void completely. In the end, we get a glimpse of what needs to change in Paul’s life, of his attempts to make decisions without being in complete control of the outcome. It’s a leap of faith, in the most mundane way. And I’m glad to report that Ferris managed to endear himself to me last-minute, out of nowhere, with a beautiful cricket scene.

And with that he did a strange and elaborate windup, putting his whole body into it. His arm pinwheeled furiously as he raced forward. The ball came at me fast and low. What the hell, I thought, what the hell, and without any expectation or understanding, doubtful of any hope of success, I swung, one eye on the ball, and one eye on heaven.

As far as cricket writing goes, this is pretty good stuff.

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Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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