I don’t like going to the dentist. I don’t even like thinking about going to the dentist, but as I’d committed to reading my fair share of the MAN Booker prize longlisted novels this year, I found myself about to read a novel about a dentist, one which had a giant picture of a tooth on the front (the US version of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour saves its readers that indignity).
Our hero is Dr Paul O’Rourke, an awkward man who has trouble connecting with others, and takes comfort in supporting the Red Sox, a team that had provided him with years of pleasure by blowing all their chances, but became oddly dissatisfying when the actually won. He hates social media and doesn’t really want to connect to the world electronically.
Suddenly he finds his online life has taken off, but it’s not him, someone is impersonating him on social media with uncanny accuracy. I can’t begin to imagine how strange that would be, but it’s a central theme of this novel, which, like fellow Man Booker Prize contender We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves delves into the question of what it is that makes us, well, us. What makes us human? What makes us unique?
The social media premise alone could carry a lesser novel, maybe a fun teenage read, but Joshua Ferris has loftier ideals, he goes further. Our narrator and subject Paul O’Rourke doesn’t do well in relationships, but when he’s in one, he’s in it completely. A complicated family life leaves him wanting a normal family to be part of. Another theme for this year’s MAN Booker. Who doesn’t want to fit seamlessly into one of those normal families that seem to exist everywhere, just out of reach of those of us who have spent our lives answering family based questions with “It’s complicated …”, long before it became a Facebook status option.
Joshua Ferris doesn’t make us love the book’s hero, but he does try to make us understand him, and in doing so, understand ourselves just a little bit better, and that works well. The real skill he’s brought to this novel is to make it funny. Really funny at times, embarrassing “laughing out loud on the tube” funny in parts, and for that reason I both recommended To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as a read, and confidently predicted that it won’t win the MAN Booker this year – giggles rarely do.
It has just picked up the Dylan Thomas Prize though, which isn’t too shabby on what would have been Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday.