[28 May 2014]
Joshua Ferris achieved fame early, with his debut novel, Then We Came to the End. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s funny and very smart, and it’s also different from a great deal of the other contemporary novels out there.
Ferris recognized some things about America that other writers had sometimes failed to notice. For example, he realized that many of us spend most of our time at work, and that some of our strangest, most complicated relationships are with colleagues. It’s still surprising that there are so few novels about “office (and other workplace) culture” in today’s bookstores.
Ferris also had some amusing things to say about death. As I recall, his debut novel involved an ad campaign about cancer. The ad writers’ job was to “make cancer funny”. How audacious! It was delightful to see a writer wring dark, dark humor from the bleak realities of existence. I certainly prefer this humor to the tiresome insistence on “closure and grief toolkits” that pervades our culture.
For example, right now, Lifetime is preparing a nauseating tragicomedy called Chasing Life. It seems to be about how cancer is actually a blessing—an invitation to live more boldly. Hand me the basin right now. Cancer is never a blessing. And there is no such thing as closure. And you will not find much relief in “a grief toolkit”. Ferris knows all of this, and his knowledge is a welcome respite from our nation’s popular culture.
His second novel, The Unnamed, earned mixed reviews. Perhaps people had unreasonably high expectations. It’s hard to resume writing after a splash-making debut novel. Just ask Jonathan Safran Foer or Monica Ali. Anyway, some people really did like Ferris’s second effort, but the reliable Times critic Janet Maslin was not among the fans. And so I skipped The Unnamed.
Now Ferris is back with another controversial book. Join me on a tour of its highlights.
Paul O’Rourke is a mildly depressed dentist who lives in northern Brooklyn and spends most of his time working near the E. 86th stop in Manhattan. This was a bit uncomfortably close to home for me. I, too, know the thrills of mild depression, domestic life in northern Brooklyn, and an array of professional commitments on the upper east side. Now, I’ll think of Paul O’Rourke whenever I get off the train at E. 86th.
It’s a sad intersection. It’s particularly sad because there is an old office-window poster of the musician Jewel—from the era in which she tried to reinvent herself as a cheery sex symbol, the era of This Way. That album came out in 2001! Why is the poster still hanging in a Manhattan window?
Back to the story. Paul runs a very busy dental practice, and spends almost no money. He does not attend concerts. He does not stop by Broadway. Correctly, he notes that people in New York City do not actually avail themselves of the city’s cultural splendors. If you want to attain a modest level of comfort in NYC, then you have to work so hard and so relentlessly that you don’t really have energy for museums and chamber-music recitals.
And yet you wouldn’t want to move out of NYC, because it’s comforting to know that, at least, the cultural offerings are out there. They are possibilities. It’s important to have possibilities.
Paul obsessively watches Red Sox games, thinks about his lost loves, and occasionally goes on good-will tours of third-world nations with his Catholic assistant, Betsy. All is well, or at least endurable, until a religious crisis takes over Paul’s life.
You see, there is a cult out there. The cult calls itself “the Ulms”. In Ferris’s fictional world, the Ulms are as put-upon as Jewish men and women. Once upon a time, the God of the Ulms appeared and said that there is but one commandment: “Doubt me.” And so a small group of Ulms devote themselves to doubting in the existence of God, in an effort to please that very same God. (Do you see Ferris’s literary resemblance to Joseph Heller?)
The Ulms take over Paul’s life. They begin tweeting in his name. They set up a fake website for his dental practice, where they make inflammatory declarations about religious history. (One example, and I’m paraphrasing: “Why do Jewish people get all the sympathy? Why isn’t there more attention paid to the historical suffering of the Ulms?”)
Understandably, Jewish people in Paul’s life become very upset. Paul, too, gets riled up, because he cannot persuade some folks that he actually isn’t making any pronouncements. He is actually an atheist.
The novel goes on and on like this. We learn a bit about the Ulms. We hear from Paul on the latest developments in the Red Sox season. We occasionally witness some shenanigans in the dental office.
The point seems to be that Paul is ambivalent about life, and that he would like some reason to go on, in the absence of religious faith. Paul’s father committed suicide years ago and, in one of this book’s darker moments, Paul admits that that particular act is sometimes on his mind:
Fuck that, I thought. I’m not having kids… I knew that having a kid would be my chance to improve upon my shitty childhood, that it would be a repudiation of my dad’s suicide and a celebration of life, but if that kid taught me how to love him, how to love, period, and then I lost him as I lost my dad, that would be it for me. I’d toss in the towel. Fuck it, fuck this world and all its heartbreak. I’d tell that to [my girlfriend], and she’d tell me that if that was how I felt I was already a slave to the fear, and good luck.
There was a final reason I didn’t want to have a kid. This one I never shared with Connie. I never seriously considered killing myself, but once you have a kid, you take that option off the table. And like I said, options are important.
If you thought that that passage was too sad or too blunt, then you’re not going to like this novel. But let it be known that I really enjoy Ferris’s voice. I admire his chutzpah. And his prose is mostly free of tics; he never seems to be trying too hard for “lyricism”.
Also, Ferris’s work reminds me of “Comfort Cult”, an essay in which Francine Prose praises William Trevor for his inspiring commitment to devastating truths. Prose points out that some readers shy away from upsetting stories, because bromides are just easier to digest. But Prose points out that bromides can often be sickening. There is comfort in seeing a writer identify and describe life’s moments of ugliness. There’s bravery in stating the truth. Prose was talking about Trevor, but she might as well have been talking about Ferris.
I’ll quote a bit more from Ferris, because it’s a pleasure:
The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.
I encouraged my patients to floss. It was hard to do some days. They should have flossed. Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years. It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass. That’s not the dentist talking. That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point? In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide. But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain—rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve—and what I called hope, what I called courage, above all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, “You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.”
Do you see what I mean? Pure pleasure. Striking insights about things big and small: the human mouth, the idea of a soul, the importance of flossing, the persistence of hope in the midst of suffering…Those two paragraphs seem effortless, and yet they’re provocative, smart, and unique.
And now I have to point out that some people really hate this book. One critic said she would rather shoot herself than read it again. Still, I’m not alone in liking it. Another critic out there has compared it to the work of Dostoyevsky.
I suppose, when Ferris sees a negative review, he thinks of all the people who have struggled with Beckett‘s Happy Days, and with Waiting for Godot.
In other words: Keep going, Joshua Ferris. Haters will hate. And though I would have preferred a slightly brisker pace (a pace similar to the astonishing gait you maintained throughout your first novel), I hope you’ll continue to allow your writing to be weird and courageous. The literary world could use a few more brainy risk-takers. And younger, aspiring writers need to continue hearing, and learning, from you.