Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour isn’t the first book that he’s written, nor the first book that has gained the attention of the awards committee (do book awards even have a committee?). However, it is his first novel that was nominated for The Man Booker prize. Which we all know, is an entirely different kettle of fish.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour tells the story of Paul O’Rourke, a 40-year-old dentist who borders on the cranky and the obsessive compulsive. Although he achieves success professionally, Paul feels as though there is something missing; whether that’s his lack of joy by the Red Sox’s victory; his inability to connect with other human beings; or even just the infuriating nature of his patients, who never listen to his urgings to floss.
When someone begins impersonating Paul online, things start to get a bit weird. Not only is this ‘Paul’ proclaiming the virtues of an obscure religion, but he also seems to know the real Paul better than Paul knows himself. Worst though, as things progress, Paul has to ask himself – would he be happier if he started living life like his fake, online self?
First, I have to admit that when I read To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I was at home in bed sick, and whenever I read a book when I’m unwell, I end up not particularly liking it. Whether this is simply a coincidence or I inadvertendly turn my ‘I’m sick’ angst towards the book I’m reading at the time, I’m not sure, but either way, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour underwhelmed me.
Which is disappointing, because it started off so strongly. Stephen King described it as ‘the Catch-22 of dentistry’, which has to be the best description for a book, ever. And for the first few chapters, I could see what he meant. Paul O’Rourke, cranky, curmudgeonry, but still kinda likeable, managed to waffle on about a whole lot of not much, while still making it entertaining. In a way he reminded me of Graeme Simsion’s beloved character, Don Tillman, a man with Aspergers whom everyone still enjoys spending time with.
But then…the plot started to go nowhere. And while Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has a lot of not much going on in it, it all comes together in the end, as though it’s one big joke that we’ve spent the past 500 pages waiting to hear the end of. This isn’t the case with Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. While Paul is cranky and curmudgeonry, it is never particularly explained why, or if, there is any resolution to his problems. His compulsive behaviour, obsessive attachment to other people’s families and even his insomnia are never explained, making me question why they were introduced in the first place.
And as the references to some obscure religion droned on and on, so that there would be pages where I zoned out, only to zone back in, so to speak, and find that I hadn’t actually missed anything pivotal in the plot. As a result, the book felt as though it sagged in the middle – a strong start and a mediocre ending, but a truly boring middle section.
Joshua Ferris is clearly an accomplished, witty writer who has the potential to produce something exceptional. For many people, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is that ‘something exceptional’. For me though, it read as though Ferris was more focused on the wittiness of his writing rather than plot or character development, and the overwhelming feeling was though it needed a harsh editor to cut out at least 50 pages from the middle section. But hey, remember, I was sick and cranky myself when I read this.
Have you read To Rise Again at a Decent Hour? Do you think it should have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize? Let me know!