On the Discovery of Everything…

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Book Reviews

I should give a warning here. Unless you’ve already read the book To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, after reading this post you’ll know a great deal more about it than you did before. I’ve tried not to give too much away, but of both joy and necessity I’ve said more than a little. I think regardless of what I’ve noted here, the wit and audacity of Ferris’s prose merits a read of this book no matter how much you know about it. But I know not everyone feels that way about such matters… so please, consider yourselves duly warned.

* * * * *

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour is the story of atheist and dentist Paul O’Rourke, a man in search of the ever-elusive everything. Golf was everything—for a while anyway—as were the Red Sox, movie streaming, walking tours of Manhattan, banjo-playing, a thriving dental practice, and a couple of failed romances. As O’Rourke confesses, “Everything was always something, but something—and here was the rub—could never be everything.” It’s hard to find your everything, you see, when the end game—so obvious to the practicing dentist, who must spend his days fending off rot and decay—is forever wafting up to greet you.

O’Rourke is a fantastic dentist, but he is miserable because he finds it difficult to enjoy the ordinary moments of his life. This is a misery to which I believe we can each relate. Whether we are persons of faith or we are atheists is irrelevant to this I think, and Ferris seems to agree. Like O’Rourke, who faces his demons in the deepest hours of the night by texting old lovers, watching recorded regular season Red Sox games—(regular season, for the love of God!)—or driving golf balls into the Hudson River from his custom-modified balcony, we must each encounter the restless quiet of our longing.

If this all sounds depressing, it’s not, for Ferris brings a verve to his writing that tickles, and a string of intimate confessionals about what it is to be human that are laugh-out-loud funny. O’Rourke is a troubled character, but not a tragic one. He doesn’t just fall in love with a woman, for instance, he falls in love with her entire family, as if he might expunge himself of those sleepless nights through adoption into a field of belonging. Then he oversteps, risks untenable intimacies, inserts foot into mouth, and ends up again with his chicken curry and the Sox on video cassette.

One aspect of the book I loved is that it wasn’t obviously written to pound a philosophical nail. Although the protagonist is an atheist, and though he finds conventional religions fairly ridiculous—as one might expect—the resolution of this novel is a delicate acceptance of the richness of life, a sense of one individual’s embrace of the unknown. It’s not an affirmation of any religion, but it’s not an affirmation of a hard line sort of atheism either. Ferris won’t quite surrender one to the other, and leaves them poised in the balance.

In one of the novel’s consummate moments, O’Rourke is reflecting on his surrender to a bizarre spirituality whose principal tenet, paradoxically, is the necessity of doubt, and says, “I guess I needed to make myself vulnerable. I was sick of the facts, the bare facts, the hard, scientific facts. I was saying: Look at me, seeking among the dubious. Doing something stupid, something stark raving mad. Look at me, risking being wrong.”

For me, the novel’s ending was just right. It floated on a certain sweetness and suggested there may be an elusive something in the balance of things, flickering through each moment—an everything perhaps—that we cannot call our own, but which can be glimpsed in our decision to risk the fullness of life in its fleeting embraces, and in the candor of its intimacy. Something beautiful, that’s been there all along.

10 Comments

  1. Sounds good, and immediately reminded me of a parallel with the book I’m currently reading: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. That, too, is about the ‘everything’ behind the many ‘somethings’. Each chapter is preceded by an italicised poetic description of nature — often the waves from the shoreline to the horizon — and of which the six characters are repeatedly, if only subliminally, made aware in a kind of unspoken, intuited acknowledgement. They proceed through their entire lives preoccupied with the ‘somethings’ whilst always, always, the unified rhythms of nature (as a metaphor for the metaphysical) rest as a backdrop to their apparently discrete identities. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful. H ❤

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hello Hariod,

      I look forward to reading The Waves. As you know I greatly enjoyed the other two books by Virginia Woolf that I read–Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. What she accomplishes with her prose is really quite remarkable! The best writers seem to accomplish something indirectly, even as the prose itself is striking down to its very details, and all of this is done in a way that confounds one’s ability to point to exactly how it was done. It’s as if the writing merely provides a place for minds to meet, so that it’s not possible to discuss the work without discussing who we are. And even that, of course, breaks down… 🙂

      Peace, my friend!
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a good one, David. I hope if you check it out that you enjoy it. It’s a pretty entertaining ride! And I did love the handling of the resolution…

      Peace
      Michael

      Like

  2. I was just thinking about how I don’t like black and white thinking and prefer the richness of all the colors in between. Paul’s tenant of the necessity of doubt reminds me of a younger me. Doubt is no longer a necessity for me, but I can still appreciate it. This sounds like a refreshing story of questioning and exploration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure what to make of the notion of doubt here. I think it was one of those ideas that bubbles up from the unconscious in a writer’s process, and you just go with it. It strikes me as a funny and perfect paradox to set as backdrop to a story like this. I don’t think he was suggesting doubt is a true ideal… And I’m with you on the black and white. It leads to stagnation and loggerheads I think… With color in our lives, and knowing in our hearts, we’re free to enjoy the ride!

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dude, your posts are so beautiful, there is always something there that lifts me, and as a writer that is what you do. Do not underestimate that.
    Peace, Harlon

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This just might be the finest book review I have ever read!! I think you have a knack for this Michael…but then again, I think whenever you put pen to paper something incredible happens!! 😉
    Hope you are well…Hope you are finished getting snowstorms…and hope a flower or two have graced your presence!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lorrie! I actually love writing these reviews once in a while. It’s great fun, and I like the way it causes me to reflect further on the work. Thank you so much for the kind words, and hope you are well, too. We had some cold rain Monday, and some snow last week, but I think we’re close to being in the clear… We’re so, so ready!

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

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