Out-of-Office Message

Joshua Ferris’s fiction reverses the daily grind—characters wake up at the office and gradually wind their way home, to a place they wouldn’t have recognized at the beginning of the day. His novels are meditations on labor and alienation in contemporary America, stocked with characters for whom life is a disease at once mediated, ameliorated, and worsened by work. Ferris’s debut, Then We Came to the End (2007), about the decline of a loopy bunch of passive employees at an ad agency, is part of a continuum that emerged first in television shows and movies, starting with Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space and continuing into the aughts with the UK and US versions of The Office. But Ferris presents the comic doom and existential stasis—no casual Fridays meets No Exit—with the range a novel affords, complete with interior monologues and shifts of view that a fixed visual frame can’t accommodate. The perils of Then We Came to the End are the tremors of a marketplace before it collapsed, the moment when the economy’s alleged shepherd turned out to be its double agent. A nameless ad agency can’t seem to stay afloat in a world that is branding itself faster than the ad agencies can. Each of Ferris’s characters finds his or her own version of downsizing, literally (in terms of layoffs) or figuratively (by going insane and retreating from the world).

In Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed (2010), the allergy to work manifests as something more particular than workplace ennui. Lawyer Tim Farnsworth ends up leaving the work sector and his stable home life because he suddenly needs, for unnamed reasons, to run. His family and friends must decide how to respond to this loved one who can no longer stay in place. His job becomes impossible, but can he still be a father, or a spouse? Blood relatives replace the corporation here, and labor value becomes love. Rogue employees are one thing, but what about a rogue husband who isn’t indulging in the good old-fashioned dysfunctions of infidelity or drunkenness but rather displaying a newfangled, trend-piece-worthy malady like motion addiction? What is tearing us apart? The market? Roaming charges? Is Tim Farnsworth himself a roaming charge?

Ferris ramps up this unease in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, which takes on conditions of labor and consciousness in the digital world. Paul O’Rourke, the central figure, is less attached than any character Ferris has worked with before. He’s a dentist with a private practice and no family, who lives for—and in fear of—the Red Sox. (He wound up in New York “to find out what kind of city could make a monster like a Yankees fan.”) O’Rourke seems to be in his forties, though his first-person narration veers in and out of generational focus. He is neither young nor enfeebled; he is, primarily, alone. He disdains the Internet, moisturizer, all denominational faiths, and most of the people he works with. The narrative hurdle this time around is the Internet itself—or at least someone on the Internet pretending to be O’Rourke, creating websites and Twitter accounts in his name. Ferris keeps his story confined mostly to protagonist and this mysterious antagonist, allowing him to focus on an ageless binary code that eventually overshadows the novel’s reflections on the digital age: doubt versus faith. To Rise Again isn’t necessarily more fully realized than his first two novels, but, except for an unnecessary slice of religious exegesis you can easily bite through, it is faster and near flawless: Ferris 2.0. He has become so vital not by making inclusive works like Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers or Zadie Smith’s NW, which span historical moments, but by choosing one layer of the social structure and exacting as many different cross sections as possible.

Augusto Serna / Flickr

In TWCTTE, Ferris made a rare but successful move by using first-person plural (“we”), which presented, often hilariously, a large cast of characters as a single voice. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the O’Rourke character mimics the glorious plurality of voices on the Web by never sounding like one person, a subtle play on free indirect discourse. We are a good fifty pages into the book before we find out that O’Rourke, who sounds an awful lot like a native New Yorker, is an atheist born in Maine, whose father shot himself in a bathtub when O’Rourke was a child. In two pages, O’Rourke moves from casual, demotic talk like “My interactions with Jewish people before Connie were limited to looking inside their mouths” to clever dyads like “Titleist health” and “Huxtable veneer,” used to describe an ex-girlfriend’s family. These turns disrupt O’Rourke’s slightly fussy and mopey voice, adding writerly pleasures that have little to do with character and everything to do with grabbing the reader.

O’Rourke’s affliction seems at first like misanthropy, or some form of Asperger’s. A longtime bachelor by the time the book opens, O’Rourke explains some of his alienation by recounting a history of being what he calls “cunt gripped,” an overly attentive boyfriend who loses his selfhood in love. In these times, he turns from Paul into “Paul-who-loves-Alison,” or whomever he has fallen too hard for. As an adult, he finds some kind of a self, rooted mostly in watching Red Sox games he’s taped on a VCR, one of the anachronistic touches that makes O’Rourke seem oddly ageless.

O’Rourke’s concrete problem, the narrative engine, is his appearance on the Web, which happens without his knowledge. An unknown figure creates a Twitter account for O’Rourke and a website for his dental practice, tricked out with mysterious religious quotations and a blurry surveillance photo of O’Rourke entering a subway station. It is soon clear that nobody in his office is responsible—not Connie, O’Rourke’s office manager and most recent ex, or Betsy, his head hygienist and hyper-Christian moral foil. O’Rourke tracks down evidence of the site’s origin, an info@ address for a company called Seir Design. As he shoots off angry e-mails, the site morphs, changing text and posting increasingly odd biblical stories about a character named Safek (Hebrew for “doubt”) that aren’t actually from the Bible. O’Rourke enlists a lawyer to uncover the source of his online presence, though Connie is his most dependable Web detective, repeatedly appearing in his doorway with an iPad to show him new developments. Together, they discover that someone has left a detailed historical comment on the New York Times website, under O’Rourke’s name, about a “mystery cult” connected to Israel, Palestine, or both. We learn that this cult is an ancient people called the Ulms, of which O’Rourke is apparently one. Not what a faithful atheist wants to hear.

The dentist is momentarily convinced that a disgruntled patient named Al Frushtick is at the root of this cyberattack, because he had once left O’Rourke’s office high on laughing gas, talking about going to Israel. But this suspicion, too, turns out to be wrong. Ferris plays this curious case of online impersonation against O’Rourke’s misanthropy, and carefully avoids turning the novel into a simple Luddite rant against the Web. He folds O’Rourke’s fear of the Internet into his general jealousy of, and alienation from, the dependable hell of other people:

My relationship with the Internet was like the one I had with the :) I hated the :) and hated to be the object of other people’s :), their :-) and their :>. I hated :-)) the most because it reminded me of my double chin. Then there was :( and :-( and ;-) as well as ;) and *-), which I didn’t even understand, although it was not as mystifying as D:< or >:O or :-&. These simplifications of speech, designed by idiots, resulted in hieroglyphics of such compounded complexity that they flew far above my intelligence. Then came the animated ones, the plump yellow emoticons with eyelashes and red tongues suggestively winking at me from the screen, being sexy, making me want to have sex with them. Every time I read an email with a live emoticon, I’d feel the astringent sexual frustration ever threatening my workaday equipoise, and the temptation to yank off in the Thunderbox while staring down at the iPad was broken only by the hygienic demands of a mouth professional.

Each Ferris book is essentially a mystery—at least in the metaphysical sense—in that whatever is making workaday life unbearable is unknowable, vague, and unnamed. To Rise Again, though, is actually structured like a mystery, complete with a specific culprit, who claims in e-mails that he is O’Rourke’s “brother.” As O’Rourke flails and attempts to prosecute the vaporous online presence—who begins posting increasingly anti-Semitic tweets—the roots of the dentist’s own self-doubt emerge. O’Rourke cycles through his past, reviewing the history of his miserable cunt-grippings, his wobbly convictions around atheism, and a desire to keep the “option” of suicide open by not having kids. Ferris isn’t playing with our fears, or even blaming the Internet for fresh new horrors. As O’Rourke moves closer to his antagonist, the least digital of all questions—the soul—becomes his biggest personal time bomb, not inflammatory tweets about Jews.

Though Ferris isn’t filing major grievances against digital culture, he does articulate the sense of lawlessness and lack of redress on the Web, which itself mirrors the growing helplessness and statelessness of a humanity at the mercy of drones and banks. When O’Rourke speaks to a cyberlaw expert at his lawyer’s office, he begs for some kind of justice to appear, suggesting “the courts” as a possibility. “She laughed, I thought a little too heartily. ‘That’s good for out there,’ she said. ‘But you’re in here now.’”

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has both the lack of fixity we feel now, living in parallel with the Internet, and the various voices of the physical world, the thrum at the heart of offices, police stations, bedrooms, and e-mail exchanges. Nobody is entirely trapped in Ferris’s world of paid labor as long as they can express themselves, even if that means a hushed conversation with a colleague on line at Starbucks, or a surreptitious tweet. But O’Rourke is indirect when he talks, and generally unable to listen. This could be the root of O’Rourke’s hubris. Who can stop dialogue? A dentist, with his hands in a patient’s mouth, perhaps—but only in his office. Not in the desert of the Web, or the real.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a staff writer at the New Yorker.