Joshua Ferris just released his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and like his previous two, this one is insightful, fascinating, and just a hair’s breadth short of perfect.
Better than any other contemporary writer, Ferris observes and articulates the absurdities and dark humor of corporate office life. (Existence, he would say, not life.) In his debut novel, Then We Came to the End, Ferris gave us Tom Mota, lovable malcontent. Tom mounts a “campaign of agitation” against corporate life, wearing three corporate golf shirts one over the other (“Company pride!” he shouts), pressing volumes of Emerson upon colleagues, and writing bizarre multi-page rants using other employees’ email. After being fired, he returns to the office for revenge — in a manner too surprising, and (thank goodness) undeadly, to be spoiled here.
In Decent Hour, Ferris’s protagonist is the boss — an overworked dentist in a highly successful practice. Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke’s discomfort with certain postmodern facts of life resonate universally. He feels empty, and he longs for religious belief so compelling that he can devote himself to it completely; however, “the boredom that overtakes me inside a church is not a passive boredom. It’s an active, gnawing restlessness. For some a place of final purpose and easy outpouring; for me, a dead end, the dark bus station of the soul.” The same thing happens eventually with the hobbies and lovers he pursues. As he puts it, “Everything was always something, but something — and here was the rub — could never be everything.” That desire for something to be everything, though, stubbornly remains.
Paul dislikes and mistrusts the Internet. He consistently calls smartphones “me-machines.” He steadfastly refuses to use Facebook and Twitter, and he will not create a website for his practice. When his hygienist points out that this alienates him from society, he replies:
“Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society. That doesn’t mean I have anything against other people. Envy them? Of course. Marvel at them? Constantly. Secretly study them? Every day. I just don’t get any closer to understanding them. And liking something you don’t understand, estranged from it without reason, longing to commune with it — who’d ask for it? … But do you want to know what I don’t understand even more than I don’t understand the boating and the tanning? Reading about the boating and the tanning online! I was already at one remove before the Internet came along. I need another remove? Now I have to spend the time that I’m not doing the thing they’re doing reading about them doing it? Streaming all the clips of them doing it, commenting on how lucky they are to be doing all those things, liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever? Where does this idea of greater connection come from? I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected. It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected. No thanks, man, I can’t do it. The world was a sufficient trial, Betsy, before Facebook.”
One day, to his surprise, a website has been created for Paul’s practice. Then a Twitter account, under his full name. Paul finds himself in the bizarre position of explaining to skeptical employees and acquaintances that no, that’s not me, even if it bears every outward sign of being me. This darkly humorous predicament spotlights key facts of postmodern life online:
1. Substance is image, and image substance, to a strange and alarming degree. A person’s “internet presence” becomes or functions as the “real person” for most practical purposes.
2. The Internet barely exists in this world, in real geography. Where is it? Yes, somewhere there are machines we call servers, and here is my computer on my desk in front of me; but when a site appears online, where does one go to remove it? It’s there online — but where’s “there”?
He finds only two tiny clues to work with: the name of the company that created the website, and the oddball religious pronouncements that appear at an increasing rate on the website and on Twitter. Paul spends the second half of the book tracking down his Internet doppelganger.
For me, that is the tiny flaw keeping this book from being perfect. The first half is 100% brilliant as it explores Paul’s internal paradoxes and the exact nature of a life lived online. The second half turns out to be a bit of a letdown. The mystery — who is pretending to be Paul, and why? — is probably best left unanswered. The answer (to avoid spoilers) has to do with a possibly nonexistent religion. Likely, no answer could ever live up to the humorous oddity of the early premise. For this reason, I recommend this book — right up to the halfway point. Maybe then you could stop, go tanning and boating, and post online about it.