Joshua Ferris

For all of the ambivalence it seems to provoke in many readers and critics, the American fiction of the 1960s and 1970s (with scattered precursors in the 1950s and and a few lingering appearances in the 1980s) that probably will  now permanently be called "postmodern" continues to make its influence felt. Whether one should speak of this influence as a shadow cast over current writers or as an enduring light that still inspires through its brilliant illumination is perhaps a point of dispute, depending on one's view both of the legacy of postmodernism and the state of current fiction, but even writers who resolutely hew to the conventional can only do so because they consciously reject the legacy of experiment in fiction initiated by the modernists and quite self-consciously extended by the postmodernists. I would maintain that very little serious fiction published in the last thirty years could be said to be free of the effects of this legacy, either through the concerted attempt to evade it or through the direct inspiration many writers find in the work of numerous postmodernists.

The first and most notable group of writers to directly respond to the perceived excesses of postmodernism--although the term itself was not yet then in use--were the minimalists, in particular Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver, whose early work in its pared-down style and lack of affect was extensively discussed as the antithesis of the stylistic overflow and formal profusion (maximalism rather than minimalism) of postmodern fiction. If these writers and those they influenced returned to realism of a sort, their stories offered a portrayal of ordinary reality every bit as mundane and colorless as the avoidance of it by the posmodernists seemed to imply it was. Later, more regressive realists such as Richard Ford, Kent Haruf, and Richard Russo adopted a more fully conventional kind of realism, but it is very hard to imagine these writers would initially have been taken very seriously had not the minimalist neorealism of Beattie and Carver first established itself as a credible practice by which to "move on" from postmodernism. By now the work of such writers has become so conventional in approach that it represents a full-scale retreat to the assumptions of 19th century realism, but finally the very fact that this sort of backwards-looking fiction persists in spite of the modernist/postmodernist legacy gives it its ultimate significance as a steadfast refusal to "experiment" with alternatives to traditional narrative.

"Experimental" as a term for categorizing works of fiction that embrace this legacy may have become contentious (mostly because of its association with the laboratory), but certainly words such as "unconventional" and "innovative" are still privileged in the literary discourse surrounding new fiction, especially the discourse used by the editors of literary magazines, whose calls for submissions routinely use the words to describe the sort of fiction they'd like to publish, even when a perusal of the fiction they actually publish reveals it to be entirely orthodox in both form and style. Clearly the postmodern attempt to make fiction more aesthetically audacious has had a lasting effect in giving terms like these an increased honorific value, but it is certainly questionable whether those now using them really understand them in quite the same way as such truly innovative writers as Donald Barthelme or Gilbert Sorrentino might have understood them.

There are of course writers whose work directly shows the influence of the first-wave postmodernists, writers such as Jonathan Lethem or George Saunders, although the influence results more in echoes and resemblances between their fiction and that of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon than in the inspiration to create something comparably new. The same is true of Joshua Ferris, whose first novel, Then We Came to the End, elicited many comparisons to Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller. This novel is especially reminiscent of Heller's Something Happened, but finally it seems more an updating of the previous novel, transferring its vision of American corporate life to the current, hipper milieu of an advertising office, than an attempt to extend the possibilities of the kind of "black humor" fiction Heller's novels most cogently exemplified. It uses the model provided by a once-audacious approach and adapts it to much less adventurous purposes.

The "humor" in Something Happened is itself of a different sort than in Catch-22, less vaudevillian if no less disquieting, produced by the half-terrorized tone of its narration by protagonist Bob Slocum. Of course, its mode of narration is the most remarked-on feature of discussions of Then We Came to the End as well, its own mode of humor created through the use of a 1st-person collective narrator who certainly also expresses a great deal of anxiety that is uneasily humorous. But while both of these books could be called comic novels, the comedy of Something Happened could be called existential, the comedy of a successful, if ordinary, man struggling with his realization that he doesn't understand his life, that life itself frightens him more than anything else. Bob Slocum's way of relating this struggle, combining hysteria with brutal honesty, both makes us laugh aloud and cringe in recognition of our shared fate.

Then We Came to the End, however, is closer to social satire, its collective narration a way of observing the internet age office workplace, a version of Mike Judge's Office Space focusing on corporate "creatives" rather than directly on high tech drudges. The narrator provides the story just enough subjective flavoring, a way of registering the characters' own perspective on their circumstances, to give the novel a source of interest beyond the implicit commentary on economic arrangements under "late capitalism," but ultimately the anxiety caused by internal competition, negotiating a hierarchical structure that pretends not to be such, and coping with the dislocations caused by an economy in seemingly perpetual recession is all on the surface, felt by the narrator and all the employees he/she represents as an obstacle to happiness as job satisfaction, not as a fundamental affliction of the soul. Heller's novel uses the workplace setting to stage one man's struggle to find the meaning of existence. Ferris uses it to dramatize the perils of the postindustrial economy.

Ferris's second novel, The Unnamed, at first appears to move away from the social observation of Then We Came to the End and to indeed focus on the existential crisis experienced by its main character, although finally we can't be entirely sure exactly what has caused protagonist Tim Farnsworth's affliction, an uncontrollable impulse to walk, often for hours and days at a time. Is it a physical (i.e., neurological) impairment? A psychological disorder? An imperfectly repressed desire to escape his prototypical middle-class existence? Whatever the diagnosis, Farnsworth's condition results in a great deal of suffering indeed, both for himself and his family, suffering not redeemed by the novel's decidedly unhappy ending.

That the novel does not answer these questions for us is one of its strengths, but surely the last one is a question the novel tempts, and to the extent The Unnamed emphasizes Farnsworth's implicit revolt against a settled life and adult responsibilities, it, like Ferris's first novel, does seem at least partly intended as social commentary, although in this case there is really very little laughter in the protagonist's dilemma, except in the sense that it is certainly a very strange one. The novel's title suggests the influence of Beckett, but where Beckett, in both his fiction and his plays, employs a seemingly allegorical structure ultimately to empty allegory of its purported meaning, in The Unnamed Ferris leaves the possible allegorical meaning of Farnsworth's grim fate as the novel's primary source of interest, since formally it is the sort of extended picaresque narrative the subject almost necessarily entails (in fact extended well past its usefulness in illustrating Farnsworth's plight), and since neither Farnsworth nor any of the other characters really have much intrinsic interest beyond their role as the victims of these inexplicable circumstances.

In his most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris again changes tack, almost as if seeking to engage aesthetic elements neglected in the first two books. Thus it employs a first-person narration that at times appeals through strength of voice in a way comparable to Then We Came to the End but also works to evoke character and emotion more directly than the quasi-objective narration of the previous novel is able to do. The narrator protagonist of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the most distinctly drawn character in Ferris's fiction so far, even while most readers are likely at best to have an ambivalent response to him (at worst to actively dislike him). The immediacy created by his first-person account inevitably pulls us toward greater sympathy, but the narrator himself does little to ingratiate himself and is in fact quite honest in communicating his frequent petulance and describing his poor treatment of other people, especially those who work for him. (The protagonist, Paul O'Rourke, is a dentist.)  

This tension between O'Rourke's generally quite frank and colorful narration and what that narration reveals about him for a while works fairly well to maintain the reader's interest in his further development, in the outcome of whatever actions he comes to take. O'Rourke is not so self-obsessed that he can't give us equally lively portrayals of the secondary characters as well, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour over perhaps the first half of the novel is compelling enough using relatively conventional appeals to character (vivid, if not exactly "well-rounded") and narrative voice. (It has some novelty appeal as well, since there aren't very many works of fiction narrated by a dentist.) When the novel's plot starts to become more apparent, however, these virtues quickly get buried by a virtually inert story about an online stalker who has somehow hacked into O'Rourke's online accounts and assumed his identity, his subsequent attempts to track down the stalker, and a semi-mythical religious sect devoted to the denial of God's existence, a living descendant of which O'Rourke is purported to be.

Much of the novel's second half is thus structured as a mystery plot--first about the identity of the stalker, subsequently about the existence of the religious sect--but the mystery is so closely tied to O'Rourke's own inveterate atheism, endless talk about which eventually preoccupies his narrative, that by the time the purpose of the stalker's attention becomes clear one hardly cares. The intrigue surrounding the "Ulm," supposedly a lost tribe traceable to the Amalekites of the Bible, seems indebted to DeLillo (particularly The Names), but it retains none of the enigmatic resonance of DeLillo's invocation of ancient mystery; instead, Ferris uses the Ulm and their beliefs to straightforwardly "say something" about faith and doubt, flattening out O'Rourke as a character and reducing the novel to a symposium on religious belief in the process.

What begins as a comic novel of the sort in which comedy arises from our response to an abrasive, antiheroic character (exemplified by Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint or Sabbath's Theater) becomes instead a story of that character's metamorphosis or redemption. Perhaps we are to find additional humor in the fact that Paul O'Rourke's apparent conversion at the end of the novel is to a "faith" that affirms a faith in nonbelief, but by then O'Rourke has lost the very peevishness that gives him life as a character, so that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour in effect winds up taking away with its right narrative hand what it had previously given us with its left.  If at first O'Rourke presents himself as a contrarian with heterodox views and a prickly personality, at the novel's conclusion he has become duly chastened, finding solidarity with a reconstituted Ulm community in Israel, where he "never had to be lonely again."

If in the end Paul O'Rourke has tempered his own excesses, smoothed over the rough edges in both his personality and worldview, arguably Joshua Ferris in all three of his novels to date has done the same thing in their relationship to first-wave postmodern fiction. He has taken the narrative strategies, the character types, and the black humor we can find in the work of the earlier writers and employed them to much less provocative effect. These books are reminiscent enough of the work of Heller or DeLillo that we want to associate them with this earlier period in American fiction as its possible continuation, except that the three novels ultimately provide a blanched-out version of the iconoclastic spirit shared by those writers, a version made safe for social satire and"quirky" narratives that represents a limited view of the usable legacy of postmodern practices considered collectively. While The Unnamed lingers in the reading memory because of the extremity of the character's circumstances, and both Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour can be called, at least in part, entertaining enough to read, ultimately they together demonstrate that the postmodern legacy has to be one whose claimants attempt to exceed it, to make it seem conservative by comparison, not to do it homage through an admittedly skilled kind of impersonation.


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