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To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

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I'm creating a dedicated thread for this novel, which was recently nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and which was then reviewed, in a rave, by Janet Maslin.

 

Paul is as dense about this as he is about everything else — until his obsession with the Ulms brings him, Uncle Stuart and a crew of hastily introduced secondary characters into investigating how the Ulms’ roots fit among the Israelites’ ancient enemies. In this branch of history, the Hebrews’ destruction of the Amalekites still lingers.

 

In the present, these hostilities have bitter resonance. In this novel, they remain as part of what originated as a detective story and much longer book, Mr. Ferris told The Paris Review; he began writing it years ago, then put it aside for a while. The drastic cuts and inevitable confusion still create bumps in “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” since this was never a book that had any easy narrative or philosophical destination. But its wit is so sharp, its fake-biblical texts (“from the Cantaveticles, cantonments 25-29”) so clever and its reach so big that the messiness doesn’t do significant damage. It’s an eminently worthy nominee for the Booker Prize or any other.

 

This is also the first novel by Mr. Ferris that really lives up to the reputation he established too quickly. It’s a major achievement that far outshines the much-publicized “Then We Came to the End,” his entertaining but weightless debut, and “The Unnamed,” a baffling, downbeat aberration. Neither of those books anticipated the wonders that turn up in this one.

 

Now that I've finished my Netherland eaudiobook, Ferris is next up.

 


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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J. Henry and I posted a few times about this novel in the Christian Fiction thread.

 

I started the audio version of Ferris' book earlier today, listening to the first of 10 parts. Here's a taste of the novel, from a posted excerpt:

 

I would have liked to believe in God. Now there was something that could have been everything better than anything else. By believing in God, I could succumb to ease and comfort and reassurance. Fearlessness was an option! Eternity was mine! It could all be mine: the awesome pitch of organ pipes, the musings of Anglican bishops. All I had to do was put away my doubts and believe. Whenever I was on the verge of that, I would call myself back from the brink. Keep clarity! I would cry. Hold on to yourself! For the reason the world was so pleasurable, and why I wanted to extend that pleasure through total submission to God, was my thinking, my reasoned, stubborn, skeptical thinking, which always unfortunately made quick work of God.

 

Non serviam! cried Lucifer. He didn’t want to eat the faces off little babies. He just didn’t want to serve. If he had served, he would have been just one more among the angels, indistinct, his name hard to recall even among the devout.
 

I’ve tried reading the Bible. I never make it past all the talk about the firmament. The firmament is the thing, on Day 1 or 2, that divides the waters from the waters. Here you have the firmament. Next to the firmament, the waters. Stay with the waters long enough, presumably you hit another stretch of firmament. I can’t say for sure: at the first mention of the firmament, I start bleeding tears of terminal boredom. I grow restless. I flick ahead. It appears to go like this: firmament, superlong middle part, Jesus. You could spend half your life reading about the barren wives and the kindled wraths and all the rest of it before you even got to the do-unto-others part, which as I understand it is the high-water mark. It might not be. For all I know, the high-water mark is to be found in, say, the second book of Kings. Imagine making it through the first book of Kings! They don’t make it easy. I’ll tell you what amazes me. I’m practically always sitting down next to somebody on the subway who’s reading the Bible, who’s smack in the middle of the thing, like on page one hundred and fifty thousand, and every single sentence has been underlined or highlighted. I have to think there’s no way this tattooed Hispanic youth has lavished on the remaining pages of his Bible such poignant highlighting so prominently on display here in the hinterlands of 2 Chronicles. Then he’ll turn the page, and sure the fuck enough: even more highlighting! In multiple colors! With notes in a friar’s hand! And I don’t mean to suggest he simply turned the page. Dude leaped forward three, four hundred pages to reference or cross-check or whatever, and there, glowing in ingot blocks, was the same concentration of highlighting. I swear to God, there are still people out there devoting their entire lives to the Bible. It’s either old black ladies or middle-aged black guys or Hispanic guys with neckties or white guys you’re surprised are white. Thousands of hours they’ve been up studying and highlighting Bible passages while I’ve been sleeping, or watching baseball, or abusing myself carnally on a recliner. Sometimes I think I’ve wasted my life. Of course I’ve wasted my life. Did I have a choice? Of course I did—twenty years of nights with the Bible. But who is to say that, even then, my life—conscientiously devout, rigorously applied, monastically contained, and effortfully open to God’s every hint and clobber—would have been more meaningful than it was, with its beery nights, bleary dawns, and Saint James and his Abstract? That was a mighty Pascal’s Wager: the possibility of eternity in exchange for the limited hours of my one certain go-round.
 

I remember a time when I took part in some of the city’s many walking tours. The entire point of a walking tour is to demonstrate how much has changed, how much is changing, and how much will have changed from some point in time before you were born to some point in time long after you’re dead. Eventually the walking tours became so depressing I stopped cold and took up Spanish. But not before I learned how, as immigration patterns shifted, and one ethnic group supplanted another, houses of worship once vital to the neighborhood lost their significance. This was especially true on the Lower East Side, where a multitude of synagogues ministering to the needs of early Jewish immigrants had been retrofitted into the churches of later Christian arrivals. The architecture of the buildings could not be altered, however, nor the details of their facades. And so there are some churches in the city where the Star of David or the relief of a candelabra or an impression of Hebrew letters sits fixed in the concrete alongside a roof-mounted crucifix and a marble statue of the Holy Mother.
 

Keep clarity! I cried. Remember how easily one house of worship can be transformed into an opposing house of worship, or risk your soul to changes in demographics and to man’s infinite capacity for practical repurposing.
 

I was visiting Europe with Connie the last time I was in a church. We must have seen eight to nine hundred churches during our twelve days there. Ask her and it was more like four. Four churches in twelve days! Can you imagine? I was constantly taking off and putting on my Red Sox hat on account of some church. The church was always famous and not-to-be-missed. There was never any difference from one to the next. No matter the time of day or intake of espresso, I was overcome, when entering a church, with an attack of the yawns. Connie insisted that the yawning didn’t need to be quite so vocal. She likened my yawns to the running of lawn equipment. She said she expected to turn and find wood chips shooting from my mouth. I frequently found myself reclined on a pew receiving her looks of outrage. But come on, it was just a yawn! I wasn’t making crude gestures. I never suggested we party in the church. The one time, I said it would be nice to get a blow job behind the church, out by the dumpsters. That was obviously a joke. There weren’t any dumpsters out there! We weren’t at a grocery store. I have a sickness for blow jobs behind grocery stores. You can’t do it very easily in Manhattan. It is most easily done in New Jersey, where it also happens to be legal. Connie took Europe far too seriously, I thought. She somberly studied the frescoes and fine print, worrying the infinite. Poets are a ponderous bunch. (Connie’s a poet.) They’re hypocrites, too. They’d never step foot in a church in America, but fly them to Europe and they rush from tarmac to transept as if the real God, the God of Dante and chiaroscuro, of flying buttresses and Bach, had been awaiting their arrival for centuries. What thrall, what sabbath longing, will overcome a poet in the churches of Europe. And Connie was Jewish! On day 3, I started calling it “Eurpoe” and didn’t stop until we touched down in Newark. Being in Jersey, I suggested we stop for groceries before heading back into the city, but Connie had had enough of me by then. To me, a church is simply a place to be bored in. I say this with all due respect to believers. I’m not immune to the allure of their fellowship of comforts. I, too, would have liked to take part in their sanctifications, hand-holdings, and large-hearted sing-alongs. But I would be damned, literally damned, if any God I might believe in wanted me to go along with the given prescriptions. He would laugh at the wafer. He would howl at the wine. He would probably feel an exquisite pity toward those mortal approximations. Oh, what do I know? Only that 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. To enter a church is to bring to a close everything that makes entering church with praise on the lips a right reasonable thing to do.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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This was a 5-star audiobook for about 70% of its length, but I thought it meandered some down the stretch. Still well worth reading/listening to.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I finished reading it Sunday night. (I've also read The Unnamed, which I liked more than most people seem to.) To Rise Again is an interesting book, but I'm not sure all of it really works. There are a lot of middle-aged white urban malaise novels out there, and for quite a while, it seemed like To Rise Again was just going to be another one of those. But then it becomes a cybercrime/identity theft story, and after that, an Ancient Near East detective thing. The strange part for me is that I'm usually least interested in the urban malaise parts, but here, I thought they were the strongest sections of the novel. The identity theft angle was interesting, too (I had something like that happen to me once), but drops away pretty quickly as the novel morphs into the existential "belonging" question that preoccupies the rest of its, and all of the Amalekite/Ulm stuff felt rushed or half-baked to me. I kind of hated the ending, too.


It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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It didn't feel akin to urban malaise to me. Like you, I don't care for that sort of story. There's too much humor in this book for it to fall into the "malaise" category, although I wonder: Did others find the novel amusing? Maybe it was just me, chuckling at the way some of the conversations unfolded, especially with Connie.

 

But I agree that the Amlekite/Ulm stuff didn't really come off, and that, I think, is the heart of what Ferris is getting at in this book. If so, I wouldn't count it an unqualified success. Yet I still hesitate to call it a failure. I certainly didn't hate any of it. On the contrary, I flat out enjoyed most of the story, but thought the resolution left something to be desired.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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It seems like I don't read as many in the urban malaise genre as I used to, but I have a soft spot for those books if the jokes hit when they're meant to and if I go in with the understanding that they almost always unravel at the end.

 

What made this one work especially well for me is that just as the urban malaise set-up was established, there is a mysterious element to drive the story that is more compelling than the standard mystery of will this guy ever grow up and commit to his lover.

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