Tag Archives: Howard Jacobson

Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014)

0141047380If 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.

The Book Group, the Finkler Question and the SWF by night

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury 2010)

This won the Booker Prize last year. Howard Jacobson lectured on Dickens to at least one member of my book group at Sydney University in the 1960s. He’s a guest at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival and we’d decided to combine our group meeting with a visit to the festival. Even if three members of the Book Group weren’t gentiles married to Jews, this book, which is broadly speaking about gentile–Jew relationships, would have been a logical choice.

Before the group meeting:
When I’d read to about page 80 I wrote a draft blog entry explaining why I didn’t finish the book. Mainly, I found the central narrative thread, in which a gentile man obsesses over the implications of having been mugged and called a Jew, to be both flimsy and ponderous. That wouldn’t have mattered if it was funny – and after all, much has been made of the Booker going to a comic novel – but I didn’t laugh once. Too often a character is given just enough two-dimensionality to allow the writer to take a satiric pot shot at her/him. There are jokes. Our gentile hero (he’s a serial romantic, Treslove by name, get it?) is in love with a woman who confesses that she’s ‘a bit of an arsonist’, and in the morning he wakes to ‘twin realisations’:

The first was that she had left him. The second was that his sheets were on fire.

Boom-tish! or Clunk! You be the judge.

In that draft I said, with only slight exaggeration, that a two page account of a Google search was the most interesting thing in the book up to that point. I did read on, hoping only for a cute line to quote as the point where the book and I parted company.

It was not to be. The Google search – “Anti-Semitic Incidents” – foreshadows a transition to something much more interesting. The unfunny humour keeps coming, and all but one or two of the characters stay paper thin, but from about the halfway point the book begins ringing the changes in a tantalisingly complex way on themes of Jewish identity and culture, Judaism, anti-Semitism, internalised anti-Semitism, Zionism and anti-Zionism. Viewpoints multiply, transmogrify, collide, dissolve. Just as you think the book is coming to a settled view, a telling incident or a forceful argument challenges that view. It’s not just the familiar ‘two-Jews-three-opinions’ thing, though it includes that. It becomes a dramatisation of intractable complexity.

Raissa Maritain, Russian Jew turned French Catholic philosopher, wrote what could have served as an epigraph to the second half of The Finkler Question: ‘To every argument can be opposed an argument, and thus appears the futility of all argument.’ Or perhaps it wouldn’t serve, as she was talking about faith as superior to reason. Up to a point, the arguments are tested here, not against faith but against the characters’ experiences – of love, loss, betrayal, disappointment, kindness, stupidity, brutality – but the characters are so thin it’s hard to believe the testing is real.

Yet other people, including the Booker judges, have loved the book. I came away feeling that I’d somehow missed the point, much as Treslove does throughout the book.

After the group meeting:
We met at a pizzeria in the wharf precinct. Three of the seven of us came straight from Howard Jacobson at the Sydney Recital Hall. Those three and I had read the book, a third had reached page 225 and was enjoying it. All the others had a much better time with than I did. One said that like me he’d noticed page 79 as the point where things became interesting, but unlike me he’d found what came after that funny in the I’ve-got-to-read-this-to-my-wife way. Others related strongly to Treslove. When I said there was almost nothing to the character they agreed, but saw that as a brilliant depiction of a certain kind of personality: ‘There’s a little Treslove in all of us.’ Someone related strongly to the theme of men of a certain age (he said ‘our age’) looking out for each other when their wives have died. Sex scenes that I found weirdly unfunny and not much else were to other people touchingly intimate. The scenes towards the end that I read as competently introducing some much needed pathos (please note the emotional distance in that way of saying it) made St least one grown man cry.

I found myself conceding that I’d enjoyed more of the book than I’d been willing to admit. But mainly it was interesting to see that the book spoke so personally to the others who had read it. Evidently I was right – I’d somehow missed the point. And the thing is, if I were to reread the book, I expect I’d miss it again. I’m the wrong horse for that course.

Our plan had been to go to the Chaser’s Empty Vessel  show at  nine o’clock, but by the time we got to the venue it was half past, and the person in orange T-shirt told us it was sold out. Some of the others went on to the poetry reading at the Number One Wine Bar. I came home.