JUNE 2, 2014
RELEASED TO GREAT fanfare in 2007, Joshua Ferris’s debut novel Then We Came to the End looked in some ways like an attack on the American worker’s tendency to offer one’s soul to the company. The story of the decently compensated but spiritually undernourished employees of a Chicago ad agency in the months around the dotcom bust of 2000, Then We Came to the End was narrated in the first-person plural, which seemed to manifest in every sentence the way that the frustrated ambitions and petty resentments of office workers can coalesce into one giant, catty consciousness. Much of the book’s sardonic energy was encapsulated in its epigraph, taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom one character was obsessed:
Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong …
Unfortunately, the book’s plotting did not share the cold clarity of the prose. There was an odd softness to the novel, a softness that, depending on one’s taste, could look like nuance or evasion. Its collective narrators work things out with each other, more or less; there are occasional traces of sitcom hugs. There was reason to worry that Ferris would claim a place as a recognizable brand of writer: one of rich linguistic gifts and significant wisdom, but a bit too quick to assure readers that he is nice and that everything will be okay.
Of course, the American economy was decidedly not okay after 2007. Then We Came to the End nowfeels like a nostalgic throwback to a time when it seemed possible to stay with the same employer for long enough to become part of something, even if it were something debased and pusillanimous.
To his great credit, Ferris did not write a second novel in which everything was okay. Instead, he wrote the breathtakingly bleak (and thoroughly underrated) The Unnamed. Starting with a premise that sounds lifted from a Jim Carrey movie — a corporate lawyer named Tim Farnsworth is afflicted with a mysterious illness that forces him to walk for hours at a time against his will — the book and its narrator traveled to places of barely mitigated darkness.Where Then We Came to the End gently mocked the American tendency towards corporate servitude, The Unnamed savagely parodied that tendency’s flipside: a self-reliance not claimed from within but cruelly enforced from without, a self-reliance that forces you to keep moving constantly, away from everything you care about, and that leaves you feeling abandoned and exposed to the elements. The novel earned its title’s clear echo of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel, The Unnamable.
It was difficult to know which Ferris would emerge next: the relaxed-coworker Ferris, cracking acerbic but fundamentally warm jokes in his cubicle, or the fast-walking Ferris, who will tell you the truth as he passes by, not stopping to offer any words of comfort.
The epigraph of his new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, offers one clue as to where the novel might go. In place of the Emerson quote, which on closer inspection does not sound so bad (maybe it is not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be a unit), we have the two harshest words from the harshest text in the Western world: “Ha, ha,” from the Book of Job.
On the other hand, Paul C. O’Rourke, the new novel’s narrator, at first seems far better off than either Tim Farnsworth or the collective narrators of Then We Came to the End. He at first seems like a close cousin of an Aaron Sorkin hero: quirky and irascible, given to long, sometimes arrogant monologues, but driven and professionally competent, complete with a romantic history with a female underling. Sorkin’s work represents the great hope that the American workplace can be a hospitable place (at least for educated white males), a place where important issues are decided or at least wittily discussed, and where fun romantic banter can be engaged in. It is a place, in other words, where the self and the collective are not necessarily at odds. Perhaps, epigraph aside, Ferris is leaning towards a sunnier, Sorkinier attitude towards American work?
Certainly, unlike Ferris’s previous characters, Paul has a sufficiently assertive sense of self to be able tell his own story, and also to be able to entertain us when he digresses from it, as he does in this riff on poets and churches: “They’d never step foot in a church in America, but fly them to Europe and they rush from tarmac to transept as if the real God, the God of Dante and chiaroscuro, of flying buttresses and Bach, had been awaiting their arrival for centuries.” The riff goes on, ending with: “To me, a church is simply a place to be bored in.” And in another first for a Ferris character, Paul has work worth doing. Then We Came to The End is, in part, about what it feels like to have a job that could go undone without anyone noticing. Paul, however, is a dentist, which means that, though his patients put off seeing him and fail to follow his advice when they do, they need him. Unlike Tim Farnsworth, whose immersion in corporate law has taken him so far away from the body that his body violently reasserts itself, Paul’s occupation is all about the physical — specifically the mouth, a “dark, wet” place “admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate.” While Tim’s condition leaves him without help from doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with him, let alone cure him, Paul knows exactly what is wrong with his patients: their refusal to floss.
But meaningful work, medical clarity, and his own entertaining style do not mean that Paul is any more rooted than any of Ferris’s previous characters; in fact, it quickly becomes clear that he is the most adrift of all. That stormy relationship with a female staffer, Connie Plotz, is not an occasion for romantic-comedy banter. Rather, the more we learn about it the stranger it becomes. An avowed and rather hectoring atheist with the decidedly goyish last name of O’Rourke, Paul was once obsessed with gaining acceptance from Connie’s Jewish family, though he seems to have gone about it poorly (such as telling a Jewish joke to one of Connie’s uncles who was in the midst of sitting shiva for his mother, and providing free dental care to someone he took for a Plotz cousin, but who was in fact an anti-Semitic hanger-on). Even his snarky soliloquy on churches is bizarrely inflected with a need for religion as well as with a despicable tendency to belittle Connie, who is the poet in question.
His relationship with Connie finally collapsed in part because of his reluctance to have children, a reluctance that, like his near-pathological need to bond with Connie’s family, seems to have more to do with his father’s suicide than he would like to admit. In fact, their entire relationship may have more to do with his father’s suicide than he would like to admit: we learn midway through that Paul has kept from Connie the fact that his middle name is Conrad, which was also the first name of his father, who went by … Connie.
Now, Paul spends most of his nights alone, indifferent to the offerings of New York. (Ferris memorably evokes the way that New York City can feel at once like it has everything to offer and nothing worth doing.) The rare moments when he is not playing with his iPhone — which Paul refers to only as a “me-machine,” a device that takes him further into himself despite its potential to do otherwise — are spent obsessively watching the Red Sox, one of the Northeast’s most popular substitutes for human connection and religious devotion.
Another one of his staffers, the widowed Mrs. Convoy, is a devout Roman Catholic who would probably like to convince Paul to convert. She would at least like Paul to reach out to the world, in the form of starting a website for his practice. He tells us he does not want a website because he is “a muddle, not a brand” and “a man, not a profile,” which, like much of what Paul tells us, seems designed to make us nod our head and overlook how fervently he is pushing people away.
One day a website somehow appears in Paul’s name, one that he neither created nor commissioned. The website itself is quite professional, with a bio that is basically the same as the one he would have written for himself. He tries to get the website taken down, to no avail. Soon enough the bio is amended to include a “weird quote” and then another “weird quote.” The weird quotes sound like they are from the Bible, except that they are about man being ordered to doubt God’s existence. Paul sends email after email to the proprietor of the website; the answers he receives are cagy but offer many invitations for Paul to examine himself. It is not long before this is the most significant relationship in Paul’s life, outstripping all of his other concerns. (Connie, and we, knows things are getting dire when Paul cannot even answer basic questions about how the Red Sox are doing.)
The source of the mysterious website turns out to be a group called the Ulm, founded by a man named Grant Arthur, who claims to be descended from the Amalekites, a tribe destroyed by the Israelites. Espousing the belief that God has commanded them to doubt his existence — and that this is why the Israelites wiped them out — the Ulm invert the common American claim to be not religious but spiritual: instead, they are not spiritual but deeply religious. They also have a very strongly asserted, if difficult to support, sense of grievance, a sense that they are the most hounded and oppressed group in history. They offer Paul the comforts of tradition and connection to a group without the embarrassments of strict supernatural belief. Even better, Paul doesn’t need to worry about gaining acceptance; they consider him a member by birthright, providing him with a confusing lineage that may or may not prove anything. The group is so perfect for Paul that, even deep into the novel, we worry that he may be imagining them.
We worry, too, that the Ulm merely provide another excuse for Paul to avoid the connection he craves. As he meets people connected to the Ulm — a billionaire who may be a fellow descendant or a fellow dupe, a beautiful woman in a Red Sox cap whom Paul decides much too quickly may replace Connie in his heart — more people are pushed away. A Twitter account started in Paul’s name grows increasingly offensive: “No more about the six million until OUR losses and OUR suffering and OUR history have finally been acknowledged.” Uncle Stuart, the patriarch of Connie’s family, arrives to remind Paul that “Amalek” is the enemy of the Jews. As all this swirls around him, Paul seems to unravel, making potentially catastrophic errors such as forgetting, in the middle of a session with a patient, whether he is supposed to be using the drill or the explorer. The novel’s great tension is whether Paul will be able to build some kind of community, or whether he will be driven deeper into isolation, perhaps to the point of following his father into suicide.
The Ulms occasionally divert the novel into the territory of madcap, Pynchonian conspiracy, and this is the novel’s least involving element. Ferris has said that the novel began life as a more explicitly Pynchonian detective novel called The Third Bishop; he was wise to change course, and might have been wiser still to pare down further. Poignantly, considering his subject matter, the Pynchon tradition appears to be a group Ferris longs to be a member of, but in which he simply doesn’t fit.
The novel is at its strongest when we, like Paul, are locked inside Paul’s head. Far from Pynchon, and very far from Aaron Sorkin, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour belongs in the territory of The Unnamed, the territory of Beckett, or perhaps of the suicide-obsessed Thomas Bernhard, whose monologuists are as arrogant as Sorkin’s but who have no place in any community.
Ferris’s major subject is not what it appeared to be with his first novel, lost individuality, but rather compulsory individuality, an individuality so terrible that it can make even the most bizarre and byzantine of subcultures — ad agencies, cults — look inviting by comparison. It is tempting to say that the problems of Ferris’s characters feel like our own, but Ferris’s work demonstrates that the use of the first-person plural is, in a very troubled and troubling way, aspirational.