Nope, as I thought. (Not that I intended to read the whole Booker longlist this year anyway. David Nicholls FFS, and newly published and expensive?) A...moreNope, as I thought. (Not that I intended to read the whole Booker longlist this year anyway. David Nicholls FFS, and newly published and expensive?) After reading the preview there's no way I'm going to be able to read the whole of The Blazing World with any patience. If it had been set a minimum of a decade earlier, though, I might have bought the premise. But ask me to think of contemporary artists feted in the 90s and what are the first namesI come up with off the top of my head: Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois, Sarah Lucas, Chris Ofili. Four out of six are women. I'm simply never going to be in sympathy with a book that expects me, without presenting a fucking solid argument (instead merely a story) to believe something entirely contrary to what I noticed myself as an avid consumer of arts media at the time - its thesis being that female artists were still overlooked in the 1990s. But had it been set in or before the 1970s, and especially in the 50s or earlier, I would have read with great interest.
The faux-scholarly manner in which it's set out is engrossing - judging by recent reading (see also The Last of the Vostyachs and others) I find studies invented for fictional purposes as exciting as real ones in real journals - but I know I will be continually annoyed with the premise of the book. And I'm not interested, currently, in making myself read nearly 400 pages of something that I don't expect to enjoy quite a bit. There are more than enough things on the internet that make me cross in the same way.
I didn't expect to get on with The Blazing World, but my reaction feels the same as that I have every time I try to start The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter, a book I'd always expected to like. It begins from a premise entirely contrary to my perceptions and evidence I could easily locate via links - and I am expected to believe it as still true now or within my own teenage and adult lifetime, rather than as applying here in this culture predominantly on a historical basis before I was able to read about it, or, far more emphatically, before I was born.
It probably isn't actually a reference - would Siri Hustvedt necessarily even have read Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton? But the naming of the character Harriet struck me as a reversal or mirror image of the plagiarist with the same name in Ackroyd's novel.(less)
[3.5] This turned out more interesting, and more offbeat, than I expected - but although it deals with some pretty big topics (including identity thef...more[3.5] This turned out more interesting, and more offbeat, than I expected - but although it deals with some pretty big topics (including identity theft and religion) it still felt rather inconsequential and throwaway.
I found it very easy and fast to read, as effortless as standing on a travelator, in the same way that kids' books tend to be when you're older. There's a lot of detail, but for want of a better word (also possibly chucking stones around in a greenhouse) a lot of it is just wittering. It should be funny - and to plenty of readers Ferris evidently is. I can see plenty of joke-shaped things on the page. But I hardly ever laughed; probably because a) I went off Woody Allen movies several years ago and b) my sense of humour is incorrigibly British these days. (A couple of weeks ago, a friend mentioned the game Cards Against Humanity; never having heard of it before I looked at its website, and thought I...just...don't...get...this. Which surprised me as I usually like said friend's sense of humour. Later, I found the UK version: it all made sense - though there were too many toilet jokes, a perennial problem with British humour.)
There's a freewheeling kind of plot: narrator Paul O'Rourke, a professionally successful but neurotic Park Avenue dentist, (probably late-30s like the author), obsessive Red Sox fan, atheist and internet refusenik, finds a website and a number of social media accounts set up in his name. His employees, who include an ex-girlfriend he still holds a torch for, and a battleaxe hygienist who annoys him but whom he keeps on because she's so good at her job, keep goading him to look at the sites rather than being supportive in diverting his attention away from them, and they feed his paranoia by saying how much some of the posts sound like him. He enters into email correspondence with the mysterious man who has set them up, doesn't stop when lawyers advise him to do so, and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy-stroke-quest in the manner of The Crying of Lot 49.
NB This paragraph is slightly spoilery in that it reveals things that aren't clear in the first 100 pages or so. Some of the web accounts set up in O'Rourke's name are spouting pseudo-Biblical text about the Amalekites, enemies of the Israelites (the name Amalek is in the Jewish tradition a personification of anti-Semitism) - with the original story altered. O'Rourke is drawn in by a group of people calling themselves the Ulm, who say they are descended from the Amalekites, but it isn't actually as sinister as it sounds: their tradition is doubt. "Our moral foundation is built on the fundamental law that God (if there is a God which there is not) would not wish to be worshipped in the perverted and misconceived ways of human beings, with their righteous violence and prejudices and hypocrisies. Doubt, or cease being moral... What the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims have tried to achieve through violence will come about naturally through our own abdication..." And - very first-world twenty-first century - they say there's a genetic ancestry test that's "eighty percent [accurate] if you came north out of the Sinai into the Rhine Valley prior to the Ashkenazi migration." It - plus the characterisation of a couple of atheist philo-Semites - is a peculiar conflation of the (1960s-onwards) coolness of Jewish culture, and contemporary atheists' (wish for a) sense of community via the internet, real-life discussion groups and mooted atheist "churches". And one that makes somewhat more sense in an American context where atheism is seen more frequently as radical and even dangerous, rather than just routine as in UK public life.
Religion is effectively understood as the ultimate attachment in the Bowlby sense - an epiphany which hit me one Christmas several years ago, though in a more detached way than O'Rourke, who wants to believe: “I would have liked to believe in God. Now there was something that could have been everything better than anything else. [Better than baseball, or his ex-girlfriends]. By believing in God, I could succumb to ease and comfort and reassurance. Fearlessness was an option!” Later, the idea of religion as an attachment to other human beings, members of the religious group in one's own time, the past and future, also appears.
The plot also seems to refer to common topics in aggressive US anti-racist blog discussions. Firstly, cultural appropriation: O'Rourke, a typical white American from a mongrel background, doesn't have a distinct cultural identity, feels rootless and boring, and via his girlfriends tries to work his way into other stronger identities: Italian Catholicism, and Judaism. (His need to belong is not really about race, but his father's suicide when Paul was a kid - however individual psychological traumas belonging to a person from the nationally dominant group tend to be disregarded in those discussions.) He also finds himself being [told he is] a bit racist when he didn't knowingly intend to be so, (a mixture of social faux-pas, unconscious assumptions coming to the surface, and atheist arguments which could be read as racist). And he is blamed by association when someone else - in this case an impostor using his name - is making statements with racist / anti-Semitic overtones. (There is an implicit question here: to what extent is it possible to be vociferously atheist without being / sounding somewhat racist? There isn't one definitive answer.) O'Rourke is much like the quibbling white blog commenter who is basically told they can't win and to go away and deal with their concerns elsewhere; in the book, he finds a culture of his own so he is no longer "appropriating". I wasn't 100% sure whether it is real-in-the-book (probably), or if, even in Ferris's fictional world, it is as Da Vinci Code as it sounds. The ambiguity isn't as strong as in, say Slaughterhouse Five, however.
The wider conclusions about religion and atheism in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour are not so evident in the way they were in Jenn Ashworth's The Friday Gospels, the only other contemporary novel I know dealing with them in a similar semi-comic fashion. They probably aren't meant to be: the story becomes more of a personal journey for O'Rourke; it ends with an upbeat, almost motivational-poster tone - the sort of thing cynical Brits love to call "so American" - and it's not clear how justified that mood really is. Although there is something to be said for the increased awareness of felt sense to balance rigid scientism. A couple of interviews with Ferris indicate he's simply throwing around ideas rather than making a statement. People have often assumed he's Jewish although he isn't actually (he's called Joshua and he looks like Joel Fleischmann from Northern Exposure). I've known a few people who might be described as philo-Semites, (it is a small phenomenon over here too) but they are much more civilised about it than O'Rourke, simply gravitating towards books, films, recipes etc, though I do recall with a smile two occasions where it elicited a slight disappointment to explain I couldn't be quite sure whether I have Jewish ancestry (east europeans who were keen to cover their ancestral tracks and various hints that make conversion a possible reason).
What this novel undoubtedly does well, where many others fail, is to give a great sense of the protagonist's working life. Too often realist novels fail in their realism because jobs happen mostly off the page, taking up far less of a person's life than they do for most in the real world. O'Rourke spends most of his time at work and the amount of his time off - spent slobbing in front of baseball games or meeting people linked to the Ulms - is proportionate to a full time job. And when he talks about his work in detail, he does sound just like the kind of healthcare professional who takes their job really seriously. I don't think I've ever seen that done better in fiction and he's way more convincing as a dentist than the protagonist of Stig Saetterbakken's Through the Night. However, when O'Rourke is talking about other areas of life, I'm less convinced. It doesn't quite seem to fit; there's a quality I can't quite describe which people seem to get after more than a couple of years in a job where they're responsible for the public like that - part of it is a continual awareness of consequences, even if you personally choose to ignore them. O'Rourke, when he's not talking about his work, doesn't have that, and just sounds like a thirtysomething comfortably middle class writer from Brooklyn.
There are also some good observations here on the passing of time and ageing, love and obsession, and the loss of control that the internet can bring. Though having in the past year or so read a lot more novels than I had done since my teens, I've found that most stories contain a few observations I connect with or which are pertinent, so these don't seem so very special. A favourite here: I usually cringe at repetitive joke re-naming of things, but found O'Rourke's perpetual use of the term "me-machine" for any tablet, mobile or laptop, just perfect. It encapsulates all the "urgh", stuck in one's head whilst in others, feelings I hate about the internet. (One of his cringier pet terms is "thunderbox" for the loo - which I'd only heard from Sloaney types who'd now be 40+; never knew it was a US word also.)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a curious book that's more than the upper-middle-class lad lit it sounds like on first blurb - but I'm still not entirely sure what it's for, and I somehow, subjectively, have the feeling that it doesn't matter, although some of the topics it addresses do. However, if you like American humour and aren't likely to be offended, it might be quite funny.(less)