Man Booker Challenge 2014: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris
Paul O’Rourke – dentist extraordinaire, reluctant New Yorker, avowed atheist, disaffected Red Sox fan, and a connoisseur of the afternoon mochaccino – is a man out of touch with modern life. While his dental practice occupies his days, his nights are filled with darker thoughts, as he alternately marvels at and rails against the optimism of the rest of humanity.
So it goes, until someone begins to impersonate Paul online. What began as an outrageous violation of privacy soon becomes something far more soul-frightening: the possibility that the virtual ‘Paul’ might be a better version of the man in the flesh . . .
My Booker challenge continues with the second book from the shortlist, and one of two by American authors to be shortlisted this year.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way – I do not approve of the Booker prize being opened up to authors of any nationality. In case you’ve been living under a cave and somehow missed this development: the prize has always been for books published in the UK, in English, by authors from Commonwealth countries. This year, for the first time, it has been opened up to writers from any country. I find it interesting that this development was widely reported just as the prize being opened up to American authors – obviously it’s a bit wider than that! The focus on American authors is understandable however – it’s a massive country with a proud and distinct literary culture (nobody ever talks about writing the “great British novel“!). It’s also proved accurate – of the six shortlisted titles, the only authors who would not have been eligible for the prize in previous years are both American. I actually find this really disappointing: if the goal of opening up the Booker to all nationalities was to allow more diverse literature in, it has failed utterly. The longlist was entirely made up of British, American, or Irish authors, with one token Australian standing in for the rest of the world.
My main objection to the Booker opening up to other nationalities is not that I am against American authors – on the contrary – it’s just that it really raises the question for me of what the Booker prize is for. To my mind, it’s a Commonwealth prize, and is intended to share and promote some of the diverse literature coming from this group of countries with our shared history. There is already a biennial Man Booker International Prize which recognises authors of any nationality, and other countries of course have their own book prizes, as well they should. I don’t see the Pulitzer Prize opening up to non-American authors any time soon, and of course it shouldn’t – that would completely change what the prize was for. So I really don’t understand why this change has been made to the Booker. I agree with several former Booker judges who have suggested that this move risks diluting the identity of the prize.
It also makes the judging of the prize massively unwieldy – several people have also raised concerns that changing the entry criteria means judges will be swamped with an unreadable mass of books to attempt to whittle down into a longlist. That’s a really good point. It’s one that the prize committee has attempted to tackle by restricting each publisher to only one submission each, unless they’ve had a longlisted title in the past 5 years (previously each publisher could submit two books for consideration). However, that inevitably means some great books will be unfairly overlooked, and weights the scales in favour of bigger publishers (five of the six shortlisted titles this year are published by recently-merged mega-publisher Penguin Random House). So all in all, I disapprove, and it makes me concerned about the future of the prize.
Now that’s out of the way, I should really talk about the book I suppose! After the rant above, I think I need to start by insisting that I tried not to let my opinions on the inclusion of non-Commonwealth authors influence my opinion of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (I’m gonna have to abbreviate this title for the rest of this review – damn it’s long! Interestingly, while J would be the shortest title ever to win, TRAAADH would be the longest). I may not agree with the change, but it shouldn’t affect my reading of the shortlist – I’m determined to judge each book on its own merits.
With that in mind, I have to say I have mixed feelings about TRAAADH. I found it a little difficult to get into at first – it struck me from the start as a witty and well-written, but essentially shallow, novel in the grand tradition of “white middle-class man whinges about his white middle-class problems”. After the first couple of chapters though it did pick up, and became a lot more interesting. Paul, the protagonist, feels his life is meaningless, and his attempts to find meaning by clinging on to other people who seem to have more to their lives are doomed to failure. Religion features prominently: he describes being in several previous, all-encompassing relationships which perhaps had less to do with the women themselves than wanting to be part of their lives, families and belief systems.
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.
Paul’s identity is stolen online by a member of a religious cult, the Ulms, who claim to be descended from a tribe contemporary with the early Israelites, with a history of persecution and oppression to rival the Jewish people but whose history has been thoroughly repressed – and claim that Paul can be genetically proven to be a fellow Ulm descendant. What follows is a bizarre, tragi-comic exploration of the ideas of faith and doubt, personal authenticity, and the gap between who we think we are and what others see of us.
There was plenty to like about this book. It’s well-written and intelligent, and almost painfully well-observed. Some of the best moments come from Paul’s attempts to ingratiate himself with his ex-girlfriend’s Jewish family, with cringeworthy results, such as telling a joke about a rabbi, a priest and a reverend while her uncle is sitting shiva for his deceased mother. There’s also some incredibly moving moments – near the end, Paul goes to visit his mother, who is in a nursing home with advanced dementia and no longer recognises or responds to him, and thanks her for helping him get through nights as a child, terrified to fall asleep, following his father’s suicide. It could have been an incredibly mawkish passage – I’m really not a fan of adding in faux-sentimentality for the sake of it – but it’s actually really beautifully written, with just the right balance of awkwardness and honesty.
Overall though, I have to say TRAAADH left me a bit cold. There’s some interesting ideas, well-explored, but ultimately I’m just not sure it really made me think any more about the world. That’s what I look for in a Booker-worthy novel, really – something that makes me see the world through different eyes. There’s a quote on the cover of the copy I read saying the book “captures what it is to be alive in early twenty-first century America” – which it may well do, but is that a perspective that was really lacking to begin with?
I did enjoy reading this, and on a technical level I can’t fault it. However I will be disappointed if it wins – with America being such a diverse country, with such a wealth of varying perspectives and stories to offer, it would be a real let-down for the first ever American Booker winner to be the story of, as I said at the start, a white middle-class man with white middle-class problems.