Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014)
If this hadn’t been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize I wouldn’t have lasted more than 30 pages. The narrator is a dentist who has a gift for clever sounding banality. He goes on about US baseball teams, his dental hygienist’s Catholicism (he’s an atheist himself, of Protestant background), Jews (one of whom has described him as philosemitic), the internet and of course himself – his sorry history with women and, obliquely, his miserable childhood. When on page 96 he uses the phrase ‘the chronic affliction of my self-obsession’, I felt strongly that it was the readers who were afflicted.
Take this, from page 120:
While standing in line to buy cigarettes …, I notices a headline on the cover of a celebrity magazine. ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together?’ it read on big print, and my mind returned to it later in the day while I worked on a patient. I didn’t know that Daughn and Taylor had gotten together, to mention nothing of them breaking up, and now, possibly getting back together again. More troubling still, I didn’t know who Daughn and Taylor were. Daughn and Taylor … I thought to myself. Daughn and Taylor … who are Daughn and Taylor? It was clear that I should know them, given the significant real estate their debatable reconciliation had commanded on the cover of one of the more reputable celebrity magazines. But I didn’t know them, and not knowing them, I realised I was once again out of touch. I would be in touch for a while, and then a headline like ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together Again?’ would come along to let me know that I was out of touch again.
And he ruminates for another page and a half until he finally asks his office manager/ex-wife who Daughn and Taylor are.
Some readers might be riveted. The plot, to that point, is very slight. Someone has set up a web site in his name advertising his practice, and there is an odd quote that could be from the Bible in his website bio.
I told myself that if the Man Booker judges liked the book enough to prefer it to Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, then something interesting must be lurking over the page. I read on.
The second half of the book is much more interesting than the first. It turns into a kind of Da Vinci Code or Foucault’s Pendulum, only written in decent prose and without exhausting historical research. It explores similar territory to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, with added fantasy. It even becomes fun. As a non US-er, I’m glad to have known a Red Sox fan and witnessed her joy when they won a 2004 baseball competition – it turns out that the narrator’s regular rants about the Red Sox have an excellent pay-off (as the many rants like the one about Daughn and Co don’t – they just don’t).
So my recommendation, in short: speed read the first five chapters (as literary judges, being busy people, may well have done) and you might end up loving this book.