In The First Bad Man, July is never afraid to be both funny and way too intimate, oddball and honest. She peers over the fences of social roles and gender norms, doing acrobatics atop the concrete walls we live in.
I encouraged my patients to floss. It was hard to do some days. They should have flossed. Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years. It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass. That’s not the dentist talking. That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point? In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide. But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain— rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve— and what I called hope, what I called courage, above all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, “You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.”
I unfortunately read this book in a month with several dentist appointments, for a crown (my first ever!) and multiple fillings.
“I’m reading a book about a dentist,” I said to my dentist. He’s the simple, happy sort of dentist who chats continuously while my mouth is forced open with a metal contraption for an hour and a half, chatting as he drills and buffs like we’re having a cup of coffee, oblivious to my non-participation in the conversation.
“Oh yeah? Is he a good guy, or a bad guy, or what?” My dentist asked. Considering this question, when presented with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour‘s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke–a dentist beleaguered, a man so without his own religion he obsesses over the families of the women he dates, their Jewish rites or Catholic sternness, a man so exhausted from working to afford his prestigious Manhattan office he has no time to enjoy the New York around him–I didn’t even know the answer to the question.
Like an alien anthropologist studying our civilization for the first time, Joshua Ferris has always written with fresh eyes on things most of us find unremarkable. He explored the desperation of the American office worker in his first novel, Then We Came to the End, and the madness of undiagnosed illness with The Unnamed. With To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, he presses further into the harshest landscapes of our modern culture, with an at times shocking, always funny, always sad examination of a dentist’s search for a religion that may not exist.
O’Rourke is struggling through the usual rituals of dentistry, regretting his decision to forgo a private office in his business’s floorplan, gazing into the eyes of his masked dental assistant and wondering what exactly she is thinking, when he discovers his identity has been hijacked online. The hijackers may or may not be part of the oldest, most secret religion of all time, and they begin using O’Rourke as a figurehead for tweets and posts about their sacred texts and past persecutions. Yes, this is an incredibly odd, brilliant book.
Joshua Ferris writes like the lovechild of Don DeLillo and Christopher Buckley, if those two authors were trapped as cubicle-mates in a droll office environment where technology constantly broke around them. Sometimes I worry that more than any other living author, Ferris will be remembered as the voice of our time period’s mad combination of consumption and lack of self care, our dizzy running on a wheel to nowhere. This worries me not because he’s a bad writer, but because his writing seems to reveal so much of modern society’s malaise while staying honest, never slipping into some sort of too-cool-hipster-Hollywood apathy.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is unique in that it is alarmingly funny, so depressing at times that it is hard not to laugh out loud. This bitter humor is Ferris’s specialty, it seems, as it runs through each of his previous books. Ferris is a fan of humor in fiction, and doesn’t think we see enough of it. He said in a recent Paris Review interview, “We’re here also to make one another laugh, and to use humor to mitigate some of the shit and misery that goes on. I think the best advice I could give a young writer would be ‘Don’t forget about the funny.’ Humor is a part of life, so make it a part of your fiction.”
Don’t be fooled, however. This is the humor of a man laughing his way to hell. Those hoping for a light read should look elsewhere. The funny is there, yes, but Ferris’s power lies in his razor-sharp depiction of some of the desperation and loneliness of daily life, and the greater questions hanging over these daily routines we all struggle through alone. Now please, don’t forget to floss.
I’m assuming that because of the Amazon/Hachette dispute, as I’m writing this the hardcover is $26 right now at Amazon, $18.20 at Powell’s.
An Interview with Joshua Ferris (theparisreview.org)