Reviewed by Danielle Susi
Other than contributing his impassioned commentary to Red Sox chat rooms and blogs, Paul O’Rourke likes to keep his life offline. When a little-known religious group hijacks Paul’s Internet identity in Joshua Ferris’ third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, he must face the realities of family history and contemplate his present-day existence.
It begins with a website for his dental practice, then a Facebook page, Twitter account, and the fraudulent use of his name in online Red Sox forums. Enraged, Paul’s investigation leads him to the maker of these accounts and down a tunnel of confusion and hope. Paul initially considers the online impersonation to be a violation of his privacy. Identity theft. But when he learns that the religious group has reached out to him as a member of their bloodline, he has the opportunity to belong to something greater than himself.
Throughout the book, the reader learns of Paul’s many obsessions. In addition to the Red Sox there is atheism, regret, and most impressively, a former obsession with Judaism in an effort to win over the family of Connie, his ex-girlfriend and receptionist. It is through this obsession that we learn of his underlying desire to belong and begin to see the potential of this mysterious contact.
The theme of altered persona in the digital age is almost inescapable. Paul all-too-frequently has his face in his “me-machine,” what Ferris has so endearingly renamed the smartphone. Before Paul learns of his alleged connection to the religion he accuses the online impersonator of ruining his life, to which the impersonator responds, “What do you really know of your life?”
More and more, we learn the religion is about reconnecting – with family, with heritage, with the people around you. Here, Paul has engaged further in the email chain with the impersonator, who we learn is a representative of the religion:
It’s at night we share in the feeling of having come home, of being with others who have known all their lives that they’ve been missing out on this, and that this is theirs at last. We light the candles, we enjoy each other’s company, we sing and talk at the table. It’s about the people, Paul, you understand. People sitting around the table, talking.
Ferris’s novel is so intricate and lovely in part because of how tightly woven it is. One might think a book about dentistry, baseball, and religion could be, well, rather boring; but this novel forces the reader to consider their habits and to challenge them, especially those habits related to what we put online and what we share publicly.
Despite Ferris’ masterful writing and skilled weaving of a complex storyline, the book has the potential to seem a little too obvious to a thoughtful reader. Paul’s connection to the religion in question serves as the antithesis of digital age interaction. The very sort of interaction he both rejects and obsesses over. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour serves as creative, well-written criticism of modern communication: the Internet pushes people toward connection, but does not replace the face-to-face companionship Paul desires. Toward the end of the novel, Paul toasts himself, “Here’s to your longing, your longing for the company of others, and all your bighearted efforts to secure it.”
For Paul, this religion might just serve as the simple answer to what he’s been searching for all along.
Danielle Susi is the author of the forthcoming chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Storyacious, Split Rock Review, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Lines+Stars, DIALOGIST, and many others. She is the recipient of a writer’s grant and residency from the Vermont Studio Center. You can read more of her work at daniellesusi.com.