Reviews — From the June 2014 issue

Stalking Back

Joshua Ferris’s half-baked novel of ideas

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Discussed in this essay:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. Little, Brown. 352 pages. $26.

 

Among the many impressive things about Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s first novel, was the coolly assured way it matched form to content. Most debuts (most novels, in fact) fumble uncertainly toward the right method for displaying their particular goods, but Ferris seemed to know in advance exactly how to tell his bittersweet tale of life and death in a Chicago advertising office. An epigraph from Emerson, stating that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is “not to be reckoned one character . . . but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand,” underpinned the key narrative decision: to have an anonymous narrator tell the story in the first-person plural. This spectral presence — a kind of collective office ego — rendered the characters slightly flattened, slightly smaller than life, which neatly supported Ferris’s central insight into the infantilizing effect of corporate culture on its personnel. It also gave just the right edge of humor to the anecdotes of cubicle life that formed the bulk of the novel, making even the most studiedly low-key among them feel momentous. Add to this Ferris’s unexpected and very touching sympathy with the objects of his satire, and the book’s enormous success begins to seem not only deserved but inevitable. It delivered the white-collar soul, in all its dimly comprehended anguish, its wistful resignation to its own tameness, as wittily and poignantly as anything I’ve seen in recent years.

“Pencils,” by Phillip Toledano, from his monograph Bankrupt (Twin Palms Publishers)

“Pencils,” by Phillip Toledano, from his monograph Bankrupt (Twin Palms Publishers)

The stylized but essentially realist approach of that book was stretched toward a more fabulist mode in the follow-up, The Unnamed. That story features another corporate man rattling his cage, only this time not through the scrupulously plausible rebellions of the earlier book but through strange periodic urges to go off on long walks around the suburbs of New York City and beyond, striding unstoppably until he passes out.

The Unnamed was disappointing. Having set up his walkabout concept, Ferris never seemed sure what kind of novel to build around it. Should the compulsive walking be treated as a metaphor for man’s thwarted nomadic nature, like something out of Kafka? Or might it work better as the initiating device in a Jekyll-and-Hyde story (the protagonist, a lawyer, is investigating a murder)? Was its quasi-fantastical aspect best left unexplained — the premise for a DeLilloesque novel of feverish rhapsodies and reveries on our apocalyptic times? Or should it play out as a literal-minded medical thriller with the familiar cast of head-scratching doctors and long-suffering family members?

At different moments the book tries out each of these possible versions of itself. The result reminded me of an experience I once had, working on a script (also about a corporate guy in crisis) for a Hollywood production company, where every week the director and I would get “notes” from a different executive — make it more mythic, more realistic, more of a thriller, more of a love story, funnier, sadder, beef up the family, make him more lonely, and so on. In our eagerness to please them all (they’d paid us a lot of money) we ended up with a garble of narrative scar tissue that in due course became a train wreck of a movie. That’s what happens when you’re not as gripped by an idea as you’d hoped to be, and instead of working it from the inside you try to steer it by second-guessing your audience.

The most visible symptom of things coming unstuck in The Unnamed was an increasingly obvious forcing of effects. The prose in Then We Came to the End was steady and functional, but even its most humdrum scene-setting passages had a fine-grained gleam, like brushed steel, that was very appealing:

We had wide hallways. Some contained offices running along both sides, while others had offices on one side and cubicles on the other. Jim Jackers’ cubicle was unique in that it was set off in a corner. He had a wonderful view because of that location and we questioned whether he deserved it. To get there you had to walk past the toner stain in the carpet on sixty. He shared that prime space with one other person, a woman named Tanya something who worked on a different partner’s team. A retractable wall separated them, made of thick privacy glass, the kind used in shower windows. Behind it, one moved about, it seemed to the other, as if scrubbing and deodorizing, when really they were just filing or inputting.

The writing in The Unnamed feels so pumped up in comparison that at one point I wondered whether Ferris wasn’t signaling the reader, over his publisher’s shoulder, that he’d lost interest in the project:

In the past he could sleep anywhere, in the snares of frostbite and the hothouses of heatstroke, exposed to ticks, spiders, snakes, the insult of birds, the menace of authorities and of the evil intentions of men.

The decision one night to sleep on the side of the road had forced him into the back of a squad car and his God talk and end-of-days ranting combined with some old-fashioned disrespect ended him up in the psych ward under physical restraint. He was given a more effective cocktail of anti-psychotics and forced to take it, daily, until his release, upon which time the importance of finding seclusion and protection for himself became intuitive again.

It’s hard to believe that the author of that first passage — so plain and yet so confidently itself, with its glint of subtle mischief — wouldn’t know that the second was at once overwrought and perfunctory.

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’s most recent book is Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). His article “Unbuilt Jerusalem” appeared in the April 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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