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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Open wide: Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (terrible title, isn't it? - what's with the sentence and clause book titles? - even though, yes, I get it, there's a play here on resurrection brought down to the extremely secular level, as in oversleeping?) has been compared with Philip Roth's writing, and with some good reason - the long disquisitions on somewhat arcane subjects, the outrage of the narrative voice - not typical of all of Roth but you can hear the influence of Portnoy and the Zuckerman novels - except that in this case the narrator is not a Roth-like novelist but in this case a Park Avenue dentist, perhaps about 40 years old, surprisingly an Irish-American (Paul O'Rourke) originally from Maine - when in fact he sounds or seems like a Jewish NYer of older vintage. You can hear echoes of DF Wallace as well - the apotheosis of an offbeat profession, the endowing of a character who, as a character, is not especially literary, with a literary voice and judgment - imagine perhaps if Updike had written the Rabbit novels in the first person and you'll get a little sense of Ferris's style Which is not to say, based on the first 40 pages, that this is as great as Roth or Updike, but Ferris is a very funny writer, some of the rants are very well written, if dark and gruesome at times, and his dialogue - sometimes a one-sided dialog, is very sharp as well. I very much enjoyed the first night's reading but also have qualms about where this novel is headed: 40 pp or in Kindle-talk 10 percent into the book, not a lot has happened other than establishment of O'Rourke and his narrative voice: the main "event" has been the fact that someone unknown has created a website for O'Rourke's dental practice, and he wonders who this might be and wants to shut it down. Other than that, he's a character without serious relationships - a hindrance, for a novel, one might think - and with an obsession for the Boston Red Sox. Me, too - but I think baseball obsessions have become an overworked literary vein - especially if carried to the near pathological level, as in this case: nobody watches every single game of the season, in particular not a hard-working dentist. Let's hope this doesn't try to become a great American novel about baseball (Roth tried that, too, and failed). O'Rourke is not a Dostoyevskeyan underground man but a very much overground man - successful in the eyes of the world, but with a dark and misanthropic view of society. The novel will live or die based on whether this view can open up, mature, change: Roth's ranks, or Updike's of DFW's for that matter, evince a love for the world around us, a nostalgia for the past, an acute sense of family and neighborhood - not just a Jeremiad against all things modern.

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