In the comments of his perspicacious review of Howard Jacobson’s J, Adam Roberts quoth:
The ‘J-under-erasure’ is quite a powerful little rebus. But it’s also a little too slippery. I’ve seen people flinch when I describe my wife as ‘a Jew’, in a way that doesn’t happen when I describe her as ‘Jewish’ (what’s that Jonathan Miler joke? ‘I’m not a Jew; I’m Jewish. Not the whole hog’). It’s not exactly ‘the n-word’, but there is a valence to ‘the j-word’ that makes it tricky for use in polite society. Jacobson is saying: that’s an index of disgust rather than sensitivity — or he’s saying what the sensitivity is sensitive to is revulsion. I wonder about that.
I have thoughts on this whole discussion after listening to Jacobson extemporise about the novel in the flesh yesterday at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In particular, he expressed a kind of relief that the moderator, David Baddiel, launched straight into the Jewish question: this has not, apparently, been the frame Jacobson has been using to discuss the novel elsewhere (for example, see his conversation with Stephen Smith on Newsnight). Baddiel rightly pointed out that in a real way this brings into the criticism of the novel its central conceit of denial and absence. The novel is about Jews – why the squeamishness?
This isn’t a review of J, however. It’s a review of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour:
“A Jew is sitting at a bar when a Jew-hater and a Jew-lover walk in,” he said at last. “They have a seat on either side of the Jew. The Jew-hater tells the Jew that he’s been arguing with the philo-Semite about which of the two of them the Jew prefers. The Jew-hater believes the Jew prefers him over the philo-Semite. The philo-Semite can’t believe that. How can the Jew prefer somebody who hates the Jews with a murderous passion over somebody who throws his arms open for every Jew he meets? ‘So what do you say,’ says the Jew-hater. ‘Can you settle this for us?’ And the Jew turns to the philo-Semite, jerks his thumb back at the Jew-hater, and says, ‘I prefer him. At least I know he’s telling the truth.'” [pg. 69]
The teller of that parable is Uncle Stu, a relative of Connie Plotz, the woman with whom Ferris’s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, has fallen in love. Paul, a self-involved, under-fulfilled misogynist (“to be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life” [pg. 50]), has pored over the Talmud and developed a taste for kosher meat. He wants to become a Jew, to be a Jew, he even agonises over whether to use the word Jew. There is something false about this passion, of course. As he later realises, “I never really saw any of the Plotzes as people. I only ever really saw them as a family of Jews.” [pg. 150]
If this suggests an old-fashioned linear novel in which the main character Learns Something About Himself, you’d be right. If the thematic repetition between this novel and J also suggests either a carefully curated shortlist or a narrowness of vision, we might lean one way or the other on the basis of Ferris’s book, which begins with O’Rourke thinking “golf could be everything” [pg. 5] and ends with him living in a kibbutz helping children. Despite Ferris’s reputation as an irreverent comic novelist, there is something earnest about this book which, curiously, makes it feel more straight-lacedly serious than a dystopian novel about a post-Holocaust Britain. There are lots of lovely moments in the book, for example in sections that deal better with the digital than most contemporary fiction, or which capture the modern workplace in the spot-on fashion for which Ferris first became famous; but all these individual elements do not really build beyond a flip picaresque into something coherent or cohesive.
Why? Paul O’Rourke is a dentist on Park Avenue in New York City, and his life is more or less empty. He chases women, not entirely successfully, and takes up a dizzying array of hobbies which he very quickly drops again. The only thing about which he is truly passionate, except for the Red Sox whose games he rather obsessively records on VHS and watches whilst eating the same meal of chicken and rice, is his work. Tellingly, he describes dentistry as the process of fighting decay: “A dentists is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.” [pg. 4] O’Rourke, then, is constantly patching up – painting over – death, for which he has no answer or understanding.
Into this environment intrudes a digital stalker. A website for O’Rourke’s practice appears without his knowledge, then a Facebook page and then a Twitter account. All of these begin to broadcast gnomic shibboleths which have the air of scripture, but which do not appear to be sourced from any known holy book. Finally, O’Rourke begins to receive emails, to which he begins to reply in a demand for explanation: “You’re the full measure of a man,” the elusive correspondent writes, “thoroughly contemporary, at odds with the American dream of upward mobility and its empty material success, and in search of real meaning for you life.” [p. 143] One is meant, I think, to doubt much of this assessment, but meaning nevertheless sits rather awkwardly at the centre of Ferris’s novel.
After all, the meaning O’Rourke ultimately finds is fictive. The emails and tweets and Facebook statuses, it turns out, are designed to lead O’Rourke to the Ulms, long-thought-lost descendents of the Amalekites (“the ancient enemy of the Jews,” says Uncle Stu, “an eternally irreconcilable enemy”) to whose number O’Rourke purportedly belongs. The Ulms are, of course, fictional – and yet they lead Paul away from all the many meanings in the novel which do exist, all the very real issues upon which Ferris touches, towards a curious accommodation with the occult. In the LRB, Thomas Jones has written grumpily about this: “I’d like to be able to say that all this is a sly commentary on the invisibility of the Palestinian experience in mainstream American culture, but I suspect that it’s merely a symptom of it. The Palestinians get three passing mentions in the novel. […] The Bedouin – a real-life oppressed minority – are silent, shadowy, remote, picturesque; a blank screen for O’Rourke to project his psychodrama onto; far less real to him, and to Ferris’s novel, than the fantasy Ulms.”
This is a real problem. Even in a novel as supplely written at Ferris’s, it’s hard for the narrative to dodge and weave enough to get away from the ways in which it squarely avoids the very questions it sets out to ask. “Aren’t you capable of finding anything beautiful in the world?” O’Rourke asks his redoubtable hygienist, and one of the convoluted and mutually-misunderstanding conversations which have presumably led in large part to this novel’s reputation for being funny ensues; but what is the book’s own answer to its protagonist’s query? From the reclusive millionaire and fellow Ulm whom Paul falls in with – with satirical shades of Ayn Rand – to the wily old bookseller who finds the Ulmish scriptures – a bit of Michael Chabon – everything about this novel (as well as being unremittingly male in perspective) leads Paul and the reader further down a rabbit hole with no apparent escape on the other side. Is this the point? Maybe. Is it satisfying? No.
Ultimately, the book offers a limp escape hatch: “It is about people, not God.” [pg. 300] This, too, is a phrase placed in the mouth – that site of much of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour‘s action – of Uncle Stu, and yet the gravity of the novel, its momentum, is always amongst the Ulms. This is not a novel without praise – the New York Times loved it, and in a wilfully impish piece in the Guardian today Robert McCrum says it should, but won’t, win the Booker. It feels to me, however, under-baked: perhaps that’s why even it’s much-lauded jokes fell flat for me, because a belly-laugh begins in the build-up. This is a smoothly written, but bumpily-executed, book, less wise than wise-cracking. It baffles me that this, rather than Siri Hustvedt’s expansive and eloquent The Blazing World, was chosen as one of US fiction’s first representatives on a Man Booker shortlist.