Always on Display: An Interview with Joshua Ferris
May 19, 2014 | by Jonathan Lee
“The mouth is a weird place,” says the dentist-narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. “Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul may just fail to turn up.”
It’s not just dentists who peer into dark spaces. Fear that the soul may fail to turn up is everywhere in Ferris’s work. To date, he has explored the human search for soulfulness in the anonymizing ecosystem of an office (Then We Came to the End); in the repercussions of an isolating, untreatable disease (The Unnamed); and repeatedly in words themselves. A short story like “The Fragments,” published in The New Yorker last spring, is constructed from snippets of half-caught conversations. It takes as its subject the not-quite-bridgeable gap between overhearing and understanding, between the sound of a sentence and the meaning inside. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour turns this artistic interest in misunderstandings into an impressive investigation of faith and doubt. It’s a novel full of existential humor, and the laughs start before the book has even begun. Not many American writers, searching the Bible for an appropriate epigraph, would have found their eyes alighting on this one:
I met Ferris on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. We talked about his desire to shift his writing away from what he calls “the over-manufacture of the imagined” to a more “face value” approach. We also discussed the ways in which he envies the sense of belonging religion can offer, and why literary critics could afford to lighten up when it comes to funny fiction. “We don’t exist in the world solely to grow goatees and stroke them,” he told me. “We’re here also to make one another laugh.”
I heard that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour started its life as a detective novel called The Third Bishop. How did you find your way from that original idea into a novel about baseball and religion, narrated by a dentist?
Ten years ago, I was despairing of writing any book at all. I had about 250 pages of the novel that eventually became Then We Came to the End, and those pages were wanting. So I put them away and eventually gave myself over to a very different manuscript. It was about a kid who had been thoroughly indoctrinated into a cult and was convinced that his strange view was the worldview. I was interested in the borderland that exists between a cult and a religion, and especially fascinated by Joseph Smith and the evolution of Mormonism.
After Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed were published, I ended up coming back to that story of an indoctrinated kid. Slowly it evolved into the story of a private detective investigating a possibly ancient religion. In a way, the books you almost wrote on the way to finding the final novel will always be more interesting than the published version. They’re a more colorful record of the writer’s life. But with the help of my two editors I came to see that the private detective, who’s inherently a kind of mediating narrator, or a cipher, wasn’t working for me either. I needed a narrator right at the center of the novel, encountering the religion for himself. He eventually became a dentist because I need my characters to have jobs in order to feel real to me. People have to work. I thought, Why not make him a dentist? It doesn’t get any more real world than that. You’re getting in there every day and making shit bleed.
There’s a lot in your novel about the private rituals of religions and of baseball, and the narrator has his own private language for some things—like calling his cell phone his “me-machine.” His big regret is that his dental practice doesn’t have a private office he can escape to.
Privacy is one of the book’s big preoccupations. I’m writing to figure out what I think about it. Without a private office in his dental practice, Paul is always on display. I think what I’m interested in is this question of to what extent an obsessive perfectionist—like Paul, like myself—should let other people into their thoughts. They can be strange thoughts.
I was also interested in the way that the Internet creates a second world, a second reality. I mainly go about my business unobserved. I don’t engage with social media. But when I go online, I can type my name into Google and see pictures of myself. I have an existence online that is not mine. There is a version of me out there that I’m not developing—that other people are developing on my behalf. It’s the same with my narrator. He’s striving for a kind of sincerity. And the Internet—the reflections of himself he sees online—are part of the reason he can’t find that sincerity, I think. He’s too aware of himself as an actor in the world, and that stops him acting. He’s an object rather than a subject. Paul’s great fear—and probably mine—is that it’s no longer possible to be authentic in the way it was before the social internet came along.
I read a piece in The Daily Beast suggesting that in 2010 a Twitter account in your name was set up, and posted anti-Semitic comments. The implication was that this might have inspired the religious identity theft plot in your novel. Is there any truth in that?
No, that didn’t come from me. I’m not aware of there having been a Twitter account purporting to be mine. Is it happening right now? Is Joshua Ferris tweeting as we speak?
We’ll have to check it out. But if that wasn’t where the impulse to write about religion and identity theft came from, perhaps you can talk about where else it may have come from.
Growing up, I didn’t belong to a religion, and that not belonging maybe bothered me at times. I was outside of the nurturing communities that religion can provide. Don’t get me wrong—I know religion can also be a show of horrors. But growing up I looked in on Catholicism as a non-Catholic, and I looked in on Judaism as a non-Jew. I was an outsider, this mutt-y white kid who had no tradition or belief. I wanted a religious community for myself, probably because I didn’t have one. If I’d had one, I probably would have spurned it.
To Rise Again At a Decent Hour starts from the question of whether there’s a kind of private language and intimacy to religion that the mutt-y white guys like me are missing out on. And to some extent, I’m also thinking about the question of whether as a writer there’s something I’ve missed out on. When you’re an American novelist in 2014, at a point when Philip Roth has had a kind of apotheosis—has ascended to heaven even though he’s still on earth—you realize the extraordinary richness he found in Judaism. I didn’t grow up within that richness. I simply didn’t have it. It cuts both ways, of course. There are writers who happen to be Jewish who get labeled as “Jewish writers” and would much rather be just writers. And here I am, lamenting the fact that I’m not a Jew! But religion offers a writer a tradition both to be nurtured in and to fight against, and that nurturing and that conflict can produce great literature. Roth was given a lifetime of material from the fights he picked with Judaism—with the generation of Jews that he raised him, with the generation that excoriated him, and finally with the generation that celebrated him. Whereas I got a few potluck dinners and some basement training in Noah.
The idea of the individual wanting to belong to a group—that might be a through-line in your work.
Yeah, I guess so. In Then We Came to the End, there were those individuals in the office environment who wanted or had no choice but to become part of the collective “we.” And there were those individuals who at all costs didn’t want to be part of the “we.” And in The Unnamed, there’s an almost mineral insistence on difference—on the ways in which this strange disease marks a character as abnormal, and the sickness refuses to let him participate in life. I’m interested in connectivity and inclusiveness, but also in what it means to be a real individual, what it requires, and how those two things might sometimes be at odds.
All writers are interested in systems of naming, of labeling, but perhaps you more than most. It seems to me that you spend a lot of time thinking about the limitations of language and, on the other hand, the ripples of resonance it’s possible to squeeze from a single word. I particularly enjoyed Googling the surname of the ex-girlfriend, Connie Plotz, and finding out that it was a Yiddish word meaning “to collapse or faint, as from surprise, excitement, or exhaustion.” And there was a Mr. Santacroce, or holy cross. And there’s a Mr. Belisle. When I looked up “Belisle” on my me-machine, I found a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, and then an online dictionary asked if I’d meant “Belial, a Hebrew term for the Devil.”
Names are a way of playing games with the reader. I choose my names with great care, you’re right about that. With Nabokov, names are always full of allusions, they always exist on some level as references—they’re places for him to play. With Pynchon, names are a great place for metaphors to be recognized, and for the reader to realize that basically everything he’s writing is metaphorical on some level.
Names generate meaning in a short amount of space—they provoke thoughts, questions. That’s something I like doing. Of course, you have to be careful. Sometimes it can alienate the reader, it can be another level of mediation, to make a character carry the great burden of a metaphoric name. The character can be a device before he or she becomes a person, and that can be a bad thing for a writer who wants to offer up a kind of emotional proximity in the work. It’s a constant struggle, the desire to be playful and the desire to communicate on some very stark emotional level.
The desire to be funny and the desire to be serious?
I don’t know that I would ever want to separate humor out from the serious, or characterize it like that. The best kind of humor isn’t topical, it doesn’t have an expiration date, and it doesn’t come out of nowhere. The best kind of literary humor is contextual, situational, and is a matter of timing and carefully generating the opportunity to provide what’s funny—that kind of humor is serious.
And yet people often make the “funny versus serious” distinction in your work. Even the critics who loved your first novel sometimes felt the need to point out that, in addition to the office-based jokes, there was a serious cancer narrative, as if that somehow gave legitimacy to what might otherwise have been a frivolous project.
Disparagement of comedy’s role in literature is deeply misguided. Sometimes people fail to recognize the extraordinary amount of craft that can go into what looks, on the surface, like a mere punch-line. In my writing, I’m trying to use different registers, and those registers are a reflection of the world. We don’t exist in the world solely to grow goatees and stroke them. We’re here also to make one another laugh, and to use humor to mitigate some of the shit and misery that goes on. I think the best advice I could give a young writer would be “Don’t forget about the funny.” Humor is a part of life, so make it a part of your fiction.
Part of the problem—part of the reason people sometimes think that comedic literature isn’t real literature—is that comedy can seem to date a piece of work. I don’t mean with a specific year. When you have a funny line, you hope to make the reader laugh. But if they reread the book, they’re unlikely to laugh at that line again. It’s hard to return the reader to the first reaction you elicited in him or her, especially with humor. The reader has already heard and absorbed the joke, and has laughed, and that’s it. Whereas with, say, a resonant, poetic line, sometimes a reader can come back to it again and again and it retains its power. People want lasting literature to have a feel of permanency, and sometimes comedy can seem disposable because you only laugh hard that first time.
To pick up on the idea of the disposable, did you worry at all about the references to Facebook and Twitter in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour?
I did, but not for long. If we’re going to talk about social media, we have to talk about it. You can’t write for the ages—there’s such pretense in that. It’s a mistake. At the start of Bartleby, the Scrivener, there are these mentions of [John Jacob] Astor meant to convey the high-level business the narrator is conducting, and then there are long descriptions of what it means to be a scrivener. No one’s interested in Astor anymore, and the role of a scrivener is no longer relevant to us. The references have no currency in the contemporary world at all. But Melville is a product of his time, and he didn’t worry about what would date and what wouldn’t.
When I write a novel today that involves Facebook or Twitter, I simply have to hope that either Facebook and Twitter will make a significant enough impression on the world that they will outlast their usefulness and be remembered, or that—if they go the way of the dodo—a reader will accept what these things are doing in the story, and not be bothered by them. One man’s future is another man’s past.
What formed your writing, early on?
I wrote, as an undergrad. And when I got out of school I was making a little scratch translating badly written scientific papers into English. There were many different layers of translation. Usually the students who’d written these papers were incredibly brilliant scientists but often without much knowledge of English. I would take their writing and improve it, and at the same time I was taking this complex science and trying to make it communicable. That job conveyed to me very strongly that for every piece of writing, there is a reader, and clarity is important.
Then I went into advertising in 1998. There’s never been a word written in the history of advertising that hasn’t had, as its core objective, the domination of the entire world. Every sentence put forth is intended to maximize the client’s market share. You want to win over not just a reader, but every reader; the biggest possible group. I started to realize the real power of a simple sentence. In college I had acquired these ideals of literature with a capital L, but my real-life work—the work of simplifying ideas—produced a writer willing to slum it with simple sentences if it meant reeling a reader in. The combination of that academic study and that real-world advertising experience really formed my voice.
There will be some reviewers of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour who will read the whole book as a kind of allegory, in the same way they did with the non-stop walking in The Unnamed. Is that bothersome to you? Do you consider yourself to be a realist writer, or does that label hold no meaning for you?
I wouldn’t be able to write anything at all if I didn’t believe I was writing about the real world. All my books are about the world I inhabit. We talked about how I abandoned a private detective novel and turned it into one about a dentist. I think that was ultimately because there was too much unreality to that original conceit—to the mediated narrator—for me to really believe in my own book.
I’d make an argument that, on the metaphysical level, Samuel Beckett was a realist. But if I gave Beckett to, say, my father, who’s a good reader but an unschooled one, he would not call it realism. He would call it some strange abstraction. But as I read the trilogy, what I see is the deep human concerns of those books, and how pressing and relevant and real they feel. Hopefully whatever feels imagined or affected in my novels nonetheless has some connection to the real world. I hope I’m conveying a seriousness in relation to the world, not a flippancy. More and more as a writer, I’m interested in taking things at face value rather than relying, as I maybe did when I was younger, on the over-manufacture of the imagined.
And yet you made up a disease in The Unnamed, and a whole religion in this novel. Why not just pick a religion off the peg—choose one that already exists?
It goes back to the idea of the distinction between a religion and a cult. Often it’s tempting to dismiss a religious movement as a cult, and I felt it was necessary to make up a religion of my own devising so that people didn’t come at it with a certain set of assumptions, or expectations. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, I know what Mormonism is.” I wanted to create a religion that seemed strange in some ways and believable in others, so that the reader thinks, I have to Google this to see if it’s real.
If I’m getting someone to Google Ulmism, the religion in the book, to see if it’s real, then on some level I have managed to make Ulmism a real religion, haven’t I? It’s real in the pages of the novel, and it’s real enough to be Googled. To take this one step further, if you Google Ulmism and find no reference to it, does that mean it’s not a real religion? If something doesn’t show up on Google, does that make it untrue? And if all true things show up on the Internet, does that mean that everything on the Internet is true? Might there be some false things on the Internet, too? How do you categorize something that is Googleable and false? Or true and un-Googleable? Before you know it, you have no firm grip whatsoever on what is true and what isn’t true, or even what that distinction means. Playing games is part of the fictional endeavor. It’s part of my attempt to take the world seriously.
Jonathan Lee is a British writer. His new novel, High Dive, will be published in the U.S. in March.