Let me see those pearly whites. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Banal retentive: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

In his new, Booker-longlisted novel, Joshua Ferris retains his title as the poet of the modern workplace, but his invented religion, Ulmism, proves to be a pretty dry excuse for a quest.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour 
Joshua Ferris
Viking, 352pp, £16.99

Meet Paul O’Rourke. Paul is a wealthy, misanthropic, middle-aged dentist with a sparkling private practice on Park Avenue in New York City. He is both an atheist and a Luddite and, like many atheists and Luddites, he is utterly obsessed with religion and technology. He derives genuine, if all too infrequent, satisfaction from drilling and filling rotten cavities but comes unstuck on the question of flossing. “What’s the point?” he asks. “In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark . . . and the teeth float away with the tide.”

It is Paul’s staff who suffer most from this existential griping. “I am haunted,” he whines in the ear of the head hygienist, Betsy Conroy, a devout Christian. “You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.”

Paul’s distaste for other people seems to stem, ironically, from a deep and nagging yearning to belong. He has no family to speak of (father, suicide; mother, mad) and no religious tradition to fall back on – unless a ritualistic entanglement with the Boston Red Sox counts. He would like to make peace with the world, but cannot, provoking outbursts from him on everything from hand lotion to the ubiquity of the emoticon “:)”.

“My relationship with the internet was like the one I had with the :),” he explains. “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 . . . I swore never to use the emoticon ever . . . until one day, offhandedly and without much thought, I used my first :) and, shortly thereafter, in spite of my initial resistance, :) became a regular staple of my daily correspondence.”

Each of Paul’s former girlfriends is selected initially for her mouth – a window not to the soul, but to the gory space in which it fails to materialise – and also for the “close-knit and conservative families” they bring with them. Take the Plotzes – the large, happy, Jewish family that produced Connie Plotz, who remains an employee at O’Rourke Dental despite the couple’s acrimonious break-up. (“I don’t get pussy whipped,” he explains in one of a handful of jokes that misfire spectacularly, “I get cunt gripped.”) Likewise the Santacroces, “a picture-perfect family of Catholics whose tidy garage, sturdy oak trees, and family portraits through the ages would absolve all the sins and correct all the shortcomings of my childhood”. In each case Paul comes on too strong and ruins his chances. “I would affirm God and convert to Catholicism and condemn abortion and drink Martinis,” he asserts, failing to remember that Sam Santa­croce is more than just a glossy lower lip and gets a say in their relationship, too.

In Ferris’s 2007 debut, Then We Came to the End, it is the sense of unity fostered by the grinding tedium of office life that makes office life bearable. That novel is narrated in the first-person plural by the staff at a failing Chicago-based advertising firm, a communal “we” that stands in stark contrast to O’Rourke’s lacerating “I”: “ ‘We love you, Paul.’ It was really that ‘we’ I wanted more than anything else,” he says. “For all my proud assertions of self, I really only wanted to be smothered in the embrace of an inclusive and coercive singular ‘we’.”

So it seems a little uncanny, even miraculous, when Connie discovers a website and Twitter account spewing pseudo-religious propaganda in Paul’s name. Her discovery signals the beginning of the plotty part of the novel. Paul is told he is an “Ulm”: the member of an ancient tribe formed by the Amalekites – a people mentioned in Genesis and 1 Chronicles, most of whom were slain at God’s command by the Israelites – in the process of forging an irredentist pact in the desert wastes of southern Israel. What makes them unique is their affirmation of faith: to become an Ulm one must doubt the existence of God.

Ulmism is the Hitchensian Church of Atheism given form and substance, and a pretty dry excuse for a quest. Ultimately it is Paul’s voice – crude, indignant, irate – that is most memorable. The desire for “connectivity” is an honest cry from a lonely professional, one that could be explored without the diversion to ersatz religion. His reflections on the day-to-day – “Pizza Fridays were no small thing”; afternoon mochaccinos are “a little joy” – ensure Ferris retains his title as the poet of the modern workplace, while the story of the Ulms strays on to dodgy ground. “Say what you will about the tragedies of the Jews,” declares the group’s leader, Grant Arthur, in the process of mythologising his own, more extreme version of Paul’s rejection by the Plotzes, “at least they have been documented.”

It is no surprise To Rise Again . . . has made the Man Booker longlist, now that Americans are being welcomed into that hitherto British-imperial sect. It signals the late acknowledgement of American preoccupations in our literature: heritage, self-determination, Israel – but if it wins I’ll eat my hat. And I could. I have a great dentist.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear