Thursday, September 3, 2015

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Ferris, as you might be able to tell from the title, is all about religion in this novel. His main character, Paul C. O’Rourke, is a dentist—a dentist with a taste for the absurd. He is funny, especially when he is trying not to be. His practice in New York City keeps him crazy busy, so he allows himself only a few indulgences. He is a Red Sox fan in New York, which means he must watch every game (except the 6th inning), taping them to watch later if he has something else on his schedule. The ritual is one which gives structure, and a kind of meaning to his life. He wants something. He still has desire of a sort.

O’Rourke tries to be normal, just so that he can get along with other folks, but he is like a space bot acting human: it’s all wrong. O’Rourke is having a crisis. He doesn’t get the point “of it all,” and he especially doesn’t see God acting in the world. So when a patient tells him he is part of a long-lost race of non-believers in God (any god), O’Rourke wonders if perhaps it isn’t just possible: To be genetically indisposed to believe in God.

O’Rourke wants something to be everything: absorbing, challenging, meaningful. His girlfriends had close family ties, and O’Rourke found that to be meaningful for awhile: he wanted to be a part of their families as much as he was interested in the women themselves. But their religious affiliations always proved a barrier. O’Rourke didn’t believe in God.

One night O’Rourke wakes in the middle of the night and the city outside his window is completely quiet. Not a person could be seen, though earlier the streets were filled with people.
"I felt so forgotten, so passed over, so left behind, so lost out. I was sure not only that everything worth doing had already been done while I was asleep but also that, now that I was awake, there was no longer anything worth doing. My first instinct was to reach for my me-machine. It put me in instant touch, it gave me instant purpose…No one had called or emailed or texted. I would do practically anything, I thought, to have them back—I mean the strollers and lovers of a few hours earlier, so that I might have another chance to stroll alongside them…and, after awhile, to leave the Promenade, off to bed for a good night’s sleep—or to that one vital thing among the city’s offerings that night, that one unmissable thing that makes staying up all night a treasure and not a terror—and then to rise again at a decent hour—to walk the Promenade in the light of a new morning…oh, come back you people lost to darkness! Come back, you ghosts, the day is hard enough. Don’t leave me alone with the night…There was the hum of the river, and the last desultory traffic of the night washing by on the expressway below. I can only suggest the effect it had one me, that is the feeling that my life, and the city’s, and the world’s every carefree, winsome hour, were perfectly without meaning."

In the final pages of the novel, O’Rourke finds himself understanding a little of how others manage to get through their days. If it doesn’t hurt, there is no reason to worry about it. "What’s the point of dwelling on all the shit and the misery?" He’d like to do as others do, but one senses his melancholy. He is lonely and there is no God.

Finally, O’Rourke concludes that there is no certainty, no freedom from doubt, “there is only will.” We may retain the doubt, but we must still act, and in the acting, we may have enough to sustain us spiritually. It makes sense to me what Ferris says about religions: that they are less concerned about God than they are about the religion itself. And all religions have this problem. They can sometimes even lose sight of morality itself, a failing no involved God should permit.

O’Rourke was free to change his affiliation from the Red Sox to the Chicago Cubs, and take a swing with a cricket bat at a ball that came in fast and low one day in Kathmandu because while he still had doubt, he also had hope. The pitcher was his patient, a patient with perfect teeth.

I had to work hard on this book for many days before I caught glimmers of Ferris' meaning. I don’t think it is because I listened to it rather than read it. The listening helped because the reader, Campbell Scott, was drier and funnier than the voice I had in my head as I read, but it is true I couldn’t mark the sections that wove the religious quest together. They got buried under the avalanche of extraneous associations the story of the dentist practice provoked.

There is nothing wrong with a little existential angst, especially if it makes one doubt and not be an arrogant prick. But Ferris is right. It doesn’t get one anywhere and itself has no meaning. One can only do what needs to be done and go on with it. Unless, of course, you don’t. Go on with it, I mean. That's the other option.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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